Two's a Queue

Retail, eCommerce, usability, customer experience, service, technology...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

It's about the journey....

Pretty much anyone who has ever worked with me knows my views about the way ecommerce businesses should work. I've even posted about it on this blog.

I still get quite excited when I interact with a company that appears to have the right balance between commerciality and solid operations. It is simply not acceptable to attract lots of visitors to your site, offer them lovely promotions, rich content and a perfect browsing experience and then abandon them once you get your hands on their money. For the customer's experience does not stop at payment - it might stop when they receive the item, but then again it might not even stop until their guarantee has run out on the product. Online businesses who understand this end to end experience -whether it lasts 5 minutes or 5 years are those who I believe to be the most successful and set up for long term growth.

Take the following examples:

Four weeks and one day ago (yes - I'm counting) I placed an order with one of the UK's biggest furniture suppliers - coincidentally one who clearly has a large marketing budget to spend sponsoring one of the UK's biggest soap operas (and whose digital marketing manager had been presenting at an event I attended not too long ago). So I ordered - pretty ropey website I have to admit but so far so mediocre. The delivery promise on the item I've bought is 4 weeks - it's a sofa after all so although I'm heartily sick of sitting on the floor I'll wait. Four weeks (and one day) later I'm still waiting. In those four weeks I've heard absolutely nothing from the company. I've essentially given them over £500 of my money and had zero communication from them (bar the auto confirm email). If I was head of ecommerce at this company I'd have to be asking myself - what is my customer experiencing? I'm not even head of ecommerce at this company and I'm brimming with ideas on what I'd do.

Conversely yesterday following an inviting marketing email from Boux Avenue I ended up purchasing a whole load of items I had no intention of originally buying while simultaneously trying to balance a project budget and eat my salad. I went for the standard delivery option (£3.00 incidentally for 1-3 days) as I wasn't in any hurry for my items, yet by the time I left the office I had a text letting me know my items had been dispatched and would be with me on Tuesday along with a tracking number to prove it.

Now I realise these are completely different products - one is a large ticket item with a long lead time which is potentially being custom made, the other a £30 stocked item in a fulfilment house probably not 50 miles from my house. I would argue this isn't the point, both of these companies clearly have savvy marketing people who will engage with a customer to get them onto the site but do they both have strong operations people who are looking to make sure there is consistency across the customer journey? If there is are they talking to each other? I'll never know as I don't work for either of them, but I'd suggest one does, the other not.

Short or long the customer's experience is the end to end experience and to be successful in online retail you have to remember it's not about the's about the (customer) journey.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Buying thin air: Working with stock online

Often when you're responsible for designing, building and testing a website you can get carried away in all sorts of exciting things in your virtual little world; design, look and feel, customer journey, fancy tools.......They're all things I've sat around tables and talked about for hours with clients and are genuine considerations when building an online business. What can get forgotten in these conversations is some of the work that needs to be done on the physical - because 9 times out of 10 an online store has a physical manifestation - whether that be a fulfillment centre, a huge DC, a store, someone's garage....unless you're iTunes the likelihood is that what your aim is to sell physical stock.

In a traditional retail environment the journey will usually follow the pattern that a customer sees an item in store, picks it up, buys it - leaving one less item on the shelf and so on. The chances of a customer buying something that isn't there are pretty slim in a traditional store environment (although I’m sure it’s happened before – all manner of odd things happen in store retail after all!). In the multichannel world there is numerous circumstances this can happen - and given no customer likes to spend money on thin air and retailers don't want to lose a sale (and probably pay a refund charge)-  it's best avoided.

So how do you manage the relationship between the virtual - the item people see on your site, and the physical - what is actually available to purchase.

Your stock file

Ah the Holy Grail – a single, real time, accurate view of stock. This is probably the single most important thing a multi-channel retailer could have today; though not many companies do. If you don't know where your stock is then you can't be reactive to the customer's needs. You need to be able to switch channels, combine channels and allow the customer freedom of choice of channel. You can't do that if you don't know where every single item of stock is at any one time. As mobile commerce settles into being a usable channel this will be even more important, the world where customers can check for the nearest store to them with a particular product available then go and buy it is not too far away and retailers should be ready.

Single – speaks for itself, you need a single point of truth for a number of reasons not just to create the multichannel experience. One of the fundamentals of retailing has to be ‘how much stock do I have?’. More often than not our retail architecture works on a store by store level and it’s a cultural shift to centrally (even in virtual way) hold stock. This is a process many businesses are going through right now to try to prepare themselves for the future of retailing.

Real time (or ish) – Timing is important but more often than not we’re constrained by system capability, legacy design, bad architecture, out dated tech. There is a number of different ways to combat this and integrations across the retail industry represent all sorts of complexities. Key thing is that the stock you hold centrally shouldn’t exclude what your website is selling, and on the other hand your website needs to know how much stock it has to sell. If you can do this on a real time basis you’re lucky, if not- find a way to fake it.

Accuracy is important - having minimal intervals between updates to your site/from your site is probably going to mitigate to this to some degree but there is also stock loss, inaccuracies of counting, accidents which happen in warehouses, things being put in the wrong place and rails of clearing in your fitting room. All of these are the enemies to accurate stock files and can absolutely undermine your multichannel capability if you don't tackle them.

Stock aware design decisions

So now I know where my stock is at each moment and my site knows. What do I do now? Well you have to work out how to interpret that information for your brand and your customer in the most useful way. Do you keep the page for a product which is out of stock? Continue to list it but let people know when it will be back? Or do you hide things as soon as they go out of stock? Do you show things before they’re in stock to create excitement and buzz for the products?

Asos show an item before it's available to buy and let you sign up to receive updates

There is no one size fits-all for what to do when it comes to your site. You need an out of stock strategy – is your product something which regularly goes out of stock and comes back in? Do you have visibility of a rebuy date? Or do you do short runs on product that it’s unlikely will come back into stock?

ACHICA show you how many items are left - allowing the customer to feel a sense of urgency about purchase

Can you suggest other items which a customer might like instead? Can you offer a gift voucher? Do you allow them to sign up for an email to indicate when it’s going to be back available to buy? Do you accept back orders? What about a wishlist so customers can bookmark the items they love? SO MANY QUESTIONS!

Amazon allow you to preorder an item

And while customers are browsing you could keep them up to date with their item- have they reserved it by putting it in their bag? If so how long for? Is the reservation valid if they go away and leave their session? If the customer does go away and come back again are you going to recheck against stock file when they open their bag or yust let them buy regardless? Fancy order management systems will do all of this for you, but they cost money so you need to work out what is right for your store and your customer.

If all else fails communicate

If a customer has placed an order which can’t be fulfilled make sure there are processes in place to pick this up as quickly as you can. An email back within 30 minutes of ordering might be inconvenient but at least you’re proactive and timely. Customers make plans – they think about delivery – take time off work to wait in, they think about where a product will go in their house, they assume a birthday gift will arrive – all of this matters to your customer and if the item doesn’t arrive because the stock never existed in the first place it’s doubly irritating and you’ve probably lost yourself a customer.

MyWardrobe let you know when you have an item in your bag which has since gone out of stock

Promises, promises

Next day delivery, same day, click and collect, check and reserve or 90 minute delivery are the new shiny toys of the ecommerce industry but they show up flaws in your order management process like nothing else. Remember it’s all very well to offer these fantastic new tools but if you can’t fulfil the product then it’s even worse for the customer than with a long lead time product.

The inspiration for this post was the infamous sofa bed purchase I made a couple of weeks ago. I had a short notice guest so ordered on next day delivery, took the day off work to wait in for it and then realised on the morning that I hadn’t had a dispatch email. I contacted the company to be told that the item was out of stock and was never going to arrive. I was annoyed, tweeted, told everyone about it, panicked trying to find somewhere I could get a sofa bed/airbed for our guest on the same day (FYI Argos and Shutl – thanks)had to spend a week begging for my refund (another post there I think), and the company lost a £250 sale.

Moral of the story – don’t promise what your stock file can’t deliver.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I'm Back!

Well after 6 long weeks without broadband (thank you Sky) 2AQ is back. Watch this space for some more retail chat very soon...