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The return to the high street: friend or foe?

By James Hyde, Co-founder and CEO of James and James Fulfilment

With our clocks adjusted to British Summer Time and Government guidelines easing off shopping restrictions for non-essential shopping, the return to the high street is back in swing. However, with non-essential shops implementing social distancing measures to ensure they remain as safe as they can be, the handling of stock remains a concern for retailers and consumers. Without a doubt, Covid-19 has reset the retail landscape, initiating the rise of eCommerce and, with that, a level of returns that can only come from the online shopping frenzy. But, as high street shopping returns, how can eCommerce stay competitive?

Moreover, as consumers visit their favourite stores again, what do eCommerce players – including multichannel retailers – need to consider to make the welcome back to non-essential retail seamless and headache-free for shoppers? A key answer is to provide them with better fulfilment options. This often involves creating a more joined-up customer journey (and experience) based on customer data. Within this scenario, offline and online marketing promotions need to be aligned and well communicated to customers – with back-end infrastructure and supply chain technology effectively connected too.

Anticipating customer behaviour

But it doesn’t stop there. Retailers need to try and appreciate how customers might react to marketing promotions. For instance, what if online advertising drives eCommerce sales: can fulfilment systems cope? What if customers want to go in-store to pick up their shopping? Is click and collect available? Or, what if marketing encourages people to buy online while in-store? Can they meet customer expectations here?

Additionally, it’s worth considering that while some customers might be delighted to return to shops, to see the latest range and buy in-store, some might be the reverse. Regardless of the situation, eCommerce has set a precedent for convenience and reliability recently; and has provided shoppers with items through the pandemic. So, we expect it to maintain a reasonable foothold as in-store shopping opens again; and that it will continue to be important for firms to focus on the ‘delivery’ customer experience, as this can serve as a point of differentiation that enables eCommerce to retain loyal customers.

The customer experience unpacked

Pre Covid-19, the hustle and bustle of customers exploring the new season ‘must-have’ in-store, finding their relevant size and heading straight to the changing room to find out what they will keep is a long-distance memory. Over the last 12 months, with the opening and closing of non-essential shopping, this in-store experience adapted to accommodate various safety measures and shifted online for many.

During eCommerce situations, partnering with a fulfilment provider to support deliveries here can provide customers better transparency too; from the moment an order confirmation is received in their inbox. Just being able to see the journey a parcel takes, from warehouse to courier, enables customers to feel confident that online ordering is safe, secure and ultimately scam-free. Again, it’s a customer experience differentiator.

Further, regardless of whether changing rooms are open, how can online-only fashion retailers create experiences without the physical presence of a changing room? Having a slick, easy to use and traceable return’s process and portal is a necessity here: this is because many consumers who buy fashion, purchase more than one size of outfit to try on at home and they send back multiple items that don’t fit. So, ensuring this process is well designed and managed becomes crucial as part of the wider experience.   

Returns data is vital

After products are returned it is also important to utilise the myriad of data received from previous orders to help guide future orders – especially if a product is not a true reflection of its size and there have been multiple returns related to a similar problem, by being too big or too small. Sharing data collected by marketing and updating brand websites with this information, allows consumers to make better-informed buying decisions when it relates to factors like size; and it reduces the burden of returns departments.

On the other hand, if you’re a high street retailer, nailing the customer experience the moment a customer sets foot in your store is vital. One way to ensure that this is possible is to make sure that if a customer does want to purchase a product in-store and if they can’t, that store assistants help with online orders; and that fulfilment centres manage the delivery effectively. Failing to meet customer expectations here could see firms potentially wave goodbye to sales, loyal customers and even harm their brand.

Understanding physical touchpoints vs visual touchpoints

When it comes to delivering a great customer experience, understanding customer preferences related to how they interact with a brand is imperative. Various customer touchpoints enable retailers to form this picture, such as visual ones for websites and physical ones for bricks-and-mortar stores. Essentially, they help retailers understand how and where customers would interact further or better with them – data collected provides greater insight into how they can improve brand perception too. Integrating a fulfilment provider as an extension of the team allows more data to be collected and utilised; and for richer data-driven decisions to be made – rather than making inaccurate assumptions.

So what visual touchpoints are typically important? Fashion consumers respond well to high-quality product images – yet they respond even better to a more immersive, multi-media shopping experience with video content and 73% of consumers have a willingness to buy afterwards. Additionally, giving consumers a clear choice of delivery options is another bonus – does the retailer offer free or next day delivery?

For many retailers, social media user-generated content (UGC) and reviews, hosted from their website, can help. Retailers can also share user content with their own community while boosting a retailer’s credibility in the process. Those retailers who do not have a high street presence will likely have to work harder to ensure their website and social media engages with their audience in the right way.

In contrast, in the case of physical touchpoints, some people see shopping as a hobby. The experience is social and recreational. They enjoy the interaction with friends, the in-store experience and engaging with store assistants and products tactilely. This is important to them. Many retailers are aware of this – but, as eCommerce thrives, they may need to incorporate an element of this into their sales mix so that if a shopper wants to engage digitally with their brand, in-store, they can. Perhaps there will be occasions when they want to research a product in-store; but buy online, while in-store. This could easily apply to fashion or electrical goods purchases and raises a question around whether this can be fulfilled?

Conclusion

No one has a crystal ball to predict what the remainder of 2021 will look like. But hand sanitiser, face masks and other restrictions remain paramount. A question on many retailers’ minds is whether consumers will revert to old habits as Covid-19 restrictions ease and people begin to feel comfortable once again knowing that the virus is at bay? At this stage, it’s too early to say and remains to be seen.

Through the pandemic, though, it’s reasonable to say that many consumers have taken to online shopping. We expect this trend to remain high. But, as consumers are allowed to shop for non-essential retail again, and visit shopping centres and the high street, we do expect sales figures to increase there. But, we don’t expect eCommerce to drastically lose the market share it has taken; because it has proven itself recently.

Instead, pureplay eCommerce brands will look to refine their online sales, marketing, customer experience and fulfilment options to customers in efforts to compete. While multi-channel retailers will strive to do the same, but they will consider fulfilment across online/offline sales channels in efforts to nail that customer experience; and, to some extent, have an advantage, unless eCommerce vendors continue to innovate.

By James Hyde, Co-founder and CEO of James and James Fulfilment

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