The art of flexibility in ecommerce delivery and returns

This month I thought I’d discuss the need for retailers to build flexibility into their approach to delivery and returns during peak trading. Christmas and the ensuing sale fest is a key trading cycle for most retailers; customer demand and expectations change subtly and, in the heat of battle, some brands lose sight of what keeps them competitive, relying on standard processes to get them through. However, standard processes aren’t always fit for purpose, so what can be done to provide excellent customer service?

This blog takes a look at five key tactics that I’ve seen retailers deploy successfully. There are many others ways to improve the delivery process online (e.g. letting customers add delivery instructions when placing the order – “Please leave with David at no. 74 if I’m not in”) but this blog is focused on actions that are most relevant to peak trading tactics.

1. Extended returns period

Christmas is hectic for many people. There are social occasions, family parties, kids to look after etc. If a gift is unwanted (e.g. wrong size, colour, your son just doesn’t like it!), it can often take some time before the recipient or sender is able to, or remembers to, take it back for an exchange or refund.

Many retailers still offer little more than the statutory cooling off period as per distance selling regulations. It’s common for customer services to get return requests after this period has expired. An inflexible policy would at best issue a credit note, at worst refuse to process the return and refund.

A flexible policy that puts the customers first reacts to the changes in consumer behaviour and extends the returns period to allow gift purchases to be returned outside of the usual window. Yes there is a cost associated with this (expect a spike in refunds) but the cost of not doing this is the potential loss of future orders because people think your customer service isn’t good enough.

2. Extended next day delivery cut-off

In the frantic run up to Christmas, there’s a lot of shopping done in the evening, often at home on tablets/laptops. Historically, next day delivery cut-off has been around midday/early afternoon. This isn’t ideal for this type of shopper. Some of the big retailers are now extending this cut-off time until about 7pm. This gives customers a bigger window during which to plan their purchase and still qualify for the next day delivery option. Please note that this has a significant impact on your logistics. If you’re using 3rd party couriers, it may not be possible. If you have your own delivery fleet, it could mean significant effort in reflowing the order management process and delivery schedule to support a later cut-off date.

I’m not claiming making these changes is easy, or you should do it without assessing the impact but the fact is delivery is a key battleground at Christmas and the major brands are upping their game.

3. Extended customer support hours

It’s likely you’ll get more demand for customer service support during peak trading. A proven tactic is to extend the usual hours for the customer service phone line and publicise this well on the website and in customer communications, such as email newsletters. Reassure people that there is someone on hand to help if needed.

Be explicit about who is available to help and when. If there will be nobody at work on Christmas Day, make sure this is clear because December 25th is now one of the most popular online shopping days.
And remember that Christmas doesn’t end at midnight on December 25th. There is usually a deluge of inbound enquiries (both online and in-store) about products, exchanges, returns and refunds. Make sure you have your Customer Service team prepped and ready to handle the spike in emails/calls/live chat sessions. This means ensuring each of them fully understands the company returns policy and is briefed on what flexibility they have to manage complaints and what the escalation process is (see 5. below for more on this).

Resolving customer enquiries expediently is hugely important during the Christmas period. I’ve found it useful to sit down with all customer facing teams prior to the ‘big surge’ (not a euphemism I assure you) and walk through how we will handle problems, making sure everyone is comfortable with what to do and each team leader is ready to support their team to get issues resolved.

4. Increase your discretionary use of goodwill gestures

Many of us are more finely tuned into goodwill at Christmas. There is a sub-conscious expectation that people will go the extra mile to keep us happy because that’s what Christmas is about. So when something goes wrong, we’re upset. Especially when it involves a gift we are trying to send to loved ones.

For example, if a gift never turned up, or the wrong item was sent, expedite the correct item by giving them a free upgrade to next day delivery and consider including a personal letter apologising and thanking them for their patience. The little touches can make a big difference.

5. Provide local delivery options

According to the Independent, during December 2012, 225k parcels failed to arrive each day when promised. Whether or not you believe the accuracy of that number, failed delivery is still a key problem for retailers at Christmas. Items get lost as creaking fulfilment processes struggle with the increase in demand, failed deliveries occur as people are busy and not at home when the parcel arrives. What can you do?

A proven solution is to build delivery flexibility into the checkout so customers can select a local delivery service such as Collect+. The advantage here is that the customer doesn’t have to be in to receive the delivery, it’s sent to a local outlet where the parcel is kept for up to 7 days and the customer can pop in at their convenience. Many of the local outlets are open until 8pm, making it easy to pop-in after work.

Although this isn’t unique to peak trading, often I’ve found the driver to implement local collection services is the chaos from the previous Christmas cycle when failed deliveries and irate customers cost the business money and a loss of customer goodwill.

Comments and questions

So what do you think retailers can do to make Christmas a smoother online shopping experience for customers?

Please drop by and share your comments, questions and experience. Please also share any relevant links related to delivery and returns good practice.

  • Great article James,

    Another thing you can look at is offering value to customers who dont recieve their package in time – (or in the case of us lads not buy things in time). Why not have a pre-created customiseable template of a digital (This is what I bought you) with a description of the product.

    Your would be gifter will then be able to print out the template and give it to the unlucky friend or family in place of their lack of gift.

    I’ve not seen this in use anywhere – just thought of it? Maybe someone does it!?

  • Jim Harris

    Really good point Russell, I would certainly like to see more retailers doing that. Don’t think my wife would be too impressed though!

  • Hi Russell,

    Great idea and no haven’t come across anyone doing that – would love to see an example and know if it works.

    What i do know is some retailers have added voucher based gifts to their christmas catalogue to cater for last shoppers because no delivery is required, the product can be sent via email and the voucher printed off at home. QUite a useful way of letting people shop right up until the very last second, even on Christmas Day whilst everyone is stuffing themselves with turkey before opening presents.

    If anyone knows of a retailer doing what Russell has suggested, please let us know!


  • Emma Bonar

    Very useful post, thanks James – I particularly like the idea of extending the returns period.

    We experimented with mobile gift vouchers (for use online and in store) at Karen Millen for last minute gifting, but take up was pretty limited. Looks like they’re still doing them though so maybe they’re more popular now.

  • Thanks Emma – great to learn what other retailers have trialled.

  • Another flexibility option which I came across recently (although not specifically geared just toward Christmas) is a Flexible exchange policy – being able to quickly exchange a product bought online in their shop.

    I’m probably not the only person who double checks to make sure something is correct after buying it with the intended recipient. On this occasion it was a pair of shoes, which I checked to make sure that they fitted before wrapping them up. Being able to quickly drop off the delivered item in a shop and pick up a size bigger in under 5 mins was brilliant. Especially as being a Yorkshireman I used an affiliate link/ voucher online to get a better price than was available on the high-street.

    (This retailer was Schuh btw)

  • Hi Martin

    That’s another great example – i know the guys at Schuh and they pride themselves on the quality of customer experience, so they’ll be delighted to know it’s noticed!