Christmas Delivery Chaos

December 17, 2010 3:56 pm

Christmas Delivery Chaos

How can online retailers manage customer expectations?

The Problem

As the second arctic blast hits the UK, couriers and distribution centres are struggling to clear the backlog of parcels created by the disruption caused by the first wave of wintry conditions. With Royal Mail aiming to deliver to one million customers on the Sunday before Christmas, and many mainstream retailers taking decisions to stop new orders adding to the problem, exactly what stance should online retailers take to maximise sales at such a crucial time of the year?

So what are the major etailers saying?

In the midst of all this stress and worry (with the exception of some disorganised shoppers who can gleefully blame it on the snow) some of the UK’s top e-retailers are advising their customers on the situation. How can this be done to maintain yuletide harmony, and are they even advising at all?

Marks and Spencer’s have temporarily suspended order taking for some Scottish and Northern England postcodes. But despite not loudly advertising it on their homepage they do have a comprehensive FAQ section on the issue. A full list of affected postcodes and stores is listed, with major cities easily identifiable.

John Lewis have placed a short message acknowledging the situation on the homepage and that it may be affecting existing orders but stop short of reassuring visitors how new orders would fare. The section does link to further limited information. Utility navigation item ‘delivery information’ does also lead to another short statement reassuring customers they will be contacted if there is a problem, that they are still taking orders and directs shoppers to their click & collect service.  

Argos haven’t placed any messaging on the homepage. The most prominent utility navigation is ‘track my order’ which doesn’t link to any information on the matter. Another utility item, ‘delivery info’, does link to a page where one sentence on the matter is displayed.

Amazon have included a small ‘delivery update’ link on the homepage which leads to revised Christmas dates and points visitors to checkout delivery estimates. It takes a largely FAQ format and language is factual. don’t display any messaging on the homepage but do have a clearly visible statement on their delivery information page. It distinguishes between Scottish/ Northern English deliveries, stating these are no longer guaranteed by their couriers before Christmas on new orders, and the rest of the UK, which is functioning 1-2 days behind usual projections.

How well are they saying it?

Communicate Confidently – If the situation is still fluid simply state what your current projection is and that you will keep pages updated. No one likes a headless chicken so be as bold as you can be without over-promising. Roadmap for the customer what is happening now, what is likely to happen and what you will do if it does.

  • Reassuring: Argos does particularly well by stating they are actively contacting affected customers, rather than that they will simply try to contact them. It imparts it’s already happening and not that they’ll get a call on Christmas eve.
  • Vague: John Lewis has at least acknowledged delivery issues straight from the homepage, but there is limited information that doesn’t suggest that they will revise as the situation changes. 

Give Information– Provide clear, concise and comprehensive information on your site, or expect your switchboard to light up like the tree in reception.

  • Detailed: Marks & Spencer provide an exhaustive list of affected postcodes in an easy to read grid table, customers can clearly see when they are or aren’t affected.
  • Limited: Argos – vague and very limited messaging acknowledges there are problems in ‘some areas’ but doesn’t state what these are and the customer has no way of finding out.

Who, me? – Be sure it’s clear who you are talking to in your messaging and ring-fence affected products or services. Make sure each type of customer is addressed with information that is specific to them. You don’t want to put someone off ordering a product if it is handled by a completely separate and unaffected supply chain. This means understanding the key journeys of each of your users and providing content for returning customers looking for advice that you want to reassure and keep as a customer, and new customers who you want to reassure and get them shopping.

Reassuring & sympathetic tone- Customers need communication and facts but remember their concern. This is an emotional situation, much thought and planning may have gone into their perfect gift and they need to hear that you sympathise. Your choice of language makes all the difference here and isn’t difficult to get right, consider phrases like ‘we sympathise that…’, ‘We’re doing everything we can to…’ and avoid being too factual.

  • Caring: Marks & Spencer do well in showing they care in their choice of language throughout their content.
    • “Please be assured we are doing all we can to get your order delivered to you.”
  • Factual: Amazon isn’t exactly nailing it, there’s no hint of understanding that the situation might be a darn disappointing one for some customers and is very ‘fact’ oriented.
    • “Will I get my order in time for Christmas? Each product detail page will message – for that specific product – what delivery option you should select to receive the product in time for Christmas. To see our best estimate of when your order will arrive, please refer to the delivery estimate in the checkout.”

But Don’t Catastrophise – Whilst you need to acknowledge the situation, there’s also a very real chance of blowing it out of proportion and risking losing sales that would have made it by Christmas. Don’t forget, some shoppers may still be unaware of the situation (even though it’s currently occupying every retailers waking – and sleeping – moment).

  • Realistic: Toys R Us got the balance just right by giving a clear link to delivery information from the homepage, and taking the proactive decision to bring the last order date for Christmas delivery forward. Again, the areas where this cannot be guaranteed for are listed as exceptions that are easy to scan.

Alternatives – Where your distribution channels allow, consider alternative order placing or collection options for customers. If you can’t let them place an order let them reserve it until you’re confident you can deliver. Can you promote click & collect? Extend usual limitations like return or holding periods and offer refunds on delivery costs. If your brand came through at the last minute it’ll be a hero in your customers’ eyes.

  • Extensions to Collect in Store: Crucially M&S encourage the use of their ‘order online, collect in store’ option on their pages. This gives customers that would have ordered online for delivery the reassurance that they can still get the perfect gift, even if they do have to make the trip into town. Knowing it’s reserved and waiting for them (and not a courier) will be comforting as the shelves begin to empty.
    • “Don’t worry if the snow is preventing you from collecting your store order for clothing, home and beauty. We are holding orders for 14 days instead of the usual 7 in areas affected by the weather.”

Impartial – Sound as if you’re working hard, but be careful it doesn’t sound like you are the source of the problem, careful imply a shift of blame to other parties or factors. You then need to state that even though it’s not your fault you are still working with the courier and your customers still mean enough for you to do whatever it takes.

  • Marks & Spencer identify the weather as the major culprit but carefully point out that it is their courier’s warehouses that are full of backlog and not M&S itself. This, as well as offering alternatives that use their own store distribution networks, protects the brand image of reliability without directly blaming the courier.

Manage Expectations – Well, as this article’s title suggests, this is obviously the first priority, but it can’t be over stressed. There are inevitably going to be some customers who cling on in blind faith that even though you’ve cancelled all deliveries and aren’t taking any more orders that theirs will still miraculously get through. The majority of people will accept that there are issues and just want to know where they stand.

Online vs the High Street

With several high street shopping days left before the monarch gets on her soap box, will customers simply resolve to brave the high street rather than risk an online disappointment?

The bricks and mortar channels are likely to see a last minute upsurge this weekend but will they cope with demand if their own stock is stuck on an icy motorway somewhere? This may turn out to be the Christmas the high street stole back.

The next big issue facing online retailers will be people wanting to make returns due to items not being delivered in time for Christmas. What do you do with the gift that appears on the 5th January, that you had to buy a replacement gift for from the high street, and no longer need? Again, communication will be important here to give prior information to the buyer and adhere to distance selling regulations.

If you cannot meet the 30 day deadline to deliver the goods or perform the service, you must inform the consumer before the expiry of the deadline… If you are unable to meet the deadline and have not agreed an alternative delivery date with the consumer, you must refund all money paid in relation to the contract including the postage and packaging.

Screen Shots From Retailers

M&S has a feature about weather updates straight from the homepage

Detailed information is provided about how weather is affecting orders

Toys R Us send a realistic message while still encouraging sales

Can click to find out more, but the information is brief.

Nothing on Argos homepage refers to delivery

Nothing on ‘Order tracking’ (utility nav) land page either

Less prominent but is under ‘delivery info’ (utility nav)

Users are reassured that they will be contacted if their delivery is affected.

Amazon Homepage:‘Delivery update’ on right says ‘during adverse weather conditions see details’

First grid items are not relevant to the page title….

Further scanning and a not very visible embedded link reveals last order dates have been revised – Nothing on homepage, access utility ‘delivery info’