The Great Delivery and Returns Battleground – Part One

Why is delivery and returns a key battleground for retail ecommerce in 2013 and beyond? Quite simply, delivery and returns is seen by customers as far more than an essential website policy; it’s a key competitive differentiator. The convenience of the service provided influences shopping habits.

The Independent on Sunday revealed that during December 2012, an estimated 225,000 parcels each day failed to arrive when promised. In an article titled “The great online delivery scandal”, they revealed the impact of poor service delivery on customers’ future shopping habits. Failing to live up to promises is damaging for your brand.

An Econsultancy survey of 1,000 UK consumers found that 10% Christmas gift orders didn’t arrive on time. 59% of those surveyed would not shop with a retailer again if they failed to deliver on time.


It’s not just about price. Of course, delivery and returns charges that are lower than your competitors is an advantage, but it’s the quality of service that will play an increasingly important role in people’s decisions on where to shop online. Some customers pay more for convenience (think premium services like evening delivery).

The next two blog posts look at the key areas of competition, using examples from retailers (both pureplay and multi-channel) who provide, in our opinion, an excellent delivery and returns service.

Quick list of discussion points:

1. Customer service ethos
2. Delivery choice for customers
3. Intelligent form validation
4. Clear and concise information

Part two (next post):

5. Making returns as easy as 1-2-3
6. Connecting the dots in multi-channel
7. Exceeding statutory requirements
8. Co-ordination across the business

1. Customer service ethos

The retailers who get ahead will be those who turn delivery & returns into KPIs for customer service and satisfaction. It’s not enough to treat them as urbane policy requirements to tick a box.

A great example is Zappos. Every page screams out choice and reliability. Free shipping and returns is standard and the cut-off time for next day delivery is crystal clear.


The policy pages are concise and written in a friendly, welcoming tone of voice. The copy tone goes right to the heart of Zappos’ customer service ethics – put the customer first, delight them and the sales will follow. They have found that the customers who cost them the most in returns are actually some of their most profitable shoppers – they order more frequently and buy higher ticket items. Lifetime value replaces short-term margin.


House of Fraser incorporates its delivery and returns USPs into the benefits bar in the global navigation. This is visible to customers from every webpage and reinforces their core service values.


The key learning is this – reduce the barriers to buying online by making make it quick and easy to get what people want, when and where they want it.

2. Delivery choice for customers

Offering a one-size fits all delivery doesn’t give customers choice. Beyond the standard delivery promise, there are multiple ways for retailers to let customers choose the most convenient delivery service:

1. Next day / Preferred day
2. Time slots e.g. 1hr time slot during the day – Maximuscle does this
3. Evenings
4. Saturdays
5. Collect+ – delivery to a local outlet – Wiggle provides this.
6. International
7. Changing delivery date by SMS

For large catalogue retailers, it’s common for delivery variation at product level, especially in a drop ship environment. Web managers need to use their product database to specify which delivery options are available for each product, so that realistic expectations are set. This information can be emphasised at checkout for clarity.

SMS isn’t used by many retailers but is actually quick to implement, depending on which carrier you are using. For example, Maximuscle uses DPD and who support delivery date changing via SMS (there is a cost associated with it). They send an SMS to the customer the day before the order is due to be delivered and the customer can respond via text to request a date change, ensuring the delivery is made when most convenient for them. A brilliant example of using mobile technology to improve the customer experience.

According to the Micros 2012 Report, Home Delivery in the UK The Doorstep Experience, last year more retailers were using pre-delivery SMS than in 2011 but still a small amount (26 of 237 tested vs. 10 in 2011). However, only 9 of those 26 allowed customers to respond and reschedule. Lots of room for improvement.


Let’s take a closer look at Collect+. If you’re not aware of it, this allows retailers to tap into local delivery outlets, usually convenience stores. There is no additional effort or cost for the customer, all the hard work is done by the retailer integrating with Collect+, which supports an API and fulfilment solutions like MetaPack.

What are the benefits for the customers?
• Stores are often open late at night, letting customers pop-in after work when the local post office is closed
• The delivery point is close to the customer’s home – no long trips out to delivery depots
• Most shops are open on weekends
• You can return items via your local Collect+ shop – just need to print off the required returns label or complete the form that comes with your parcel
• The flexibility of the opening times really helps people with busy lives.

3. Intelligent form validation

There are three common errors with online form validation for addresses that increase customer frustration:

1. Errors aren’t displayed until the form is submitted
This often means you have to go back and retype the whole address. Even more frustrating is when you have filled out personal data fields like username and password and then enter an incorrect address – we’ve seen pages that wipe all the personal data just because you’ve got the address wrong!

2. One-way system
Some checkouts have a nasty habit of not allowing you to go back without losing everything you have already done. An often over-looked requirement is to ensure that if a customer uses their browser back or forward buttons, it doesn’t break the checkout. Ensure you code the checkout to preserve information, or at least display a warning message that navigating away from the page risks losing data.

3. Inaccurate address validation
This is where websites aren’t using intelligent validation tools to match addresses accurately, allowing human error to pass through into order files. This can cause problems for delivery, such as missing orders. We’ve even experienced a cancelled order because of an incorrect delivery address – no attempt to resolve the issue, just straight to cancellation without an explanation.

Our recommendation is to use in-line, or real-time, validation. This validates what the customer enters in each field as they progress. An error is flagged immediately with instructions for correcting it, helping them to complete the form accurately. In a test conducted with Usability experts Etre, Luke Wroblewski found that real-time validation caused a 22% increase in success rates and 31% increase in satisfaction rating.

We recently launched Capture+ for online checkouts. This uses rapid searching to increase accuracy – matching addresses appear as soon as your customer starts typing, so no more need to enter data then click “find address”. One less click, one less opportunity for exit.


4. Clear and concise information

Don’t throw in curveballs at the last minute! You should ensure that delivery timings & costs are made clear before the checkout is started – this can be done on product and basket pages.

If there are so many delivery options it’s not possible to accurately quote the cost upfront, then show a “Delivery from” message with the cost for standard delivery with a link to your detailed delivery information page (opening in a light box or new tab). This at least sets expectations.

When providing premium services like next day delivery, make it clear when the cut-off is and what day the parcel will arrive. The example below from Accessories Online shows a live ticker counting down the daily order cut-off time.


User-friendly presentation of information is really important. Where websites have a lot of policy information, they need to think of ways of making it easy to digest. A good option is to use HTML quick links to enable people to jump to the most relevant information. House of Fraser uses a neat tab system, splitting policy details into relevant sections and then providing a menu of links for each option.


All content should be editable via a CMS and displayed as text, ensuring you can add/edit time and context-specific messages as and when required.

Below is a good example from Wiggle who responded to January’s snow flurry by reassuring customers that they were still delivering orders. Again, a simple touch but it demonstrates a proactive approach to handling delivery.


Read part two next month…

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