2020 has truly been a year like no other. So far, retailers have triumphed in the face of adversity – despite temporarily shutting-up-shop for spring, the pandemic gave ecommerce the essential nudge it’s been craving. For the likes of Amazon, it’s estimated that the company will reach their projected sales for 2025 this year – something must be going right for them.

Yet, now the second wave is sadly upon us, thrown into lockdown once more, the biggest test is yet to come. Santa Claus is coming to town, the Golden Quarter of 2020 is here, but not as we’ve ever known it before. Standard peak season is hard enough to manage, but this year’s peak is shaping up to be a task of epic proportions. As we stare down the barrel of the holiday shopping season, we can see an online-only peak, plenty more challenges for parcel delivery during lockdown, and a large dash of Christmas uncertainty to top it all off. 

David Grimes, CEO & founder, Sorted

In the upcoming weeks, retailers across the globe will be looking back at the year, finessing forecasts for 2020 and trying to predict what 2021 might have in store. All of these conversations will be different, but one thing will remain the same; excellent customer experience will continue to be the main ingredient for retail success in the current and unpredictable climate.  

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With that notion, here are the five key takeaways retailers should consider as we jump headfirst into the peak of a very unusual peak:

Prepare for the unpredictable

In an abrupt and unexpected way, the pandemic knocked many fast-growing retailers off course. While some have become agile and dealt with it well, others have not. As we look back with hindsight at the retail ‘winners and losers’, it’s clear that those who have not drowned under the pressure of COVID-19, are the brands that have moved with the times. By acting quickly on their toes and thinking of innovative ways to reach customers – these are the real winners in retail.

So far, we’ve seen some impressive responses. To help meet the surge in online grocery trade Tesco employed 16,000 extra staff, while the Amazon workforce is set to hit one million after their pandemic hiring spree. Sainsbury’s, as well, found a way to continue launching a new on-demand service in conjunction with Deliveroo, delivering goods within as little as 20 minutes. This is only to name a few of the big ones.

Pandemic or not, customers want speed, ease and visibility with every transaction. It’s just about finding new ways to achieve this, all while side-tracking a COVID-sized curveball of course. 

Keep delighting customers

When it comes to customer service and communications; consumers expect complete transparency. With the busiest shopping season about to wipe the shelves clean (well, e-shelves) retailers must be ready for an influx of customer queries and to act on customer feedback quickly. Luckily, it’s the 21st Century and there is an ever-changing landscape of new digital channels that are available to customers. Retailers just have to make sure they have the right technology in place to be able scale operations and make agile changes fast, to serve customers wherever and whenever they expect to be served. 

Customers want that valuable information on the status of their parcels and the ability to self-serve their queries, as and when it suits them. One of the most effective solutions for a steep rise in contact enquiries is to allow customers to answer their own questions through the most appropriate channels, such as online tracking systems. If customers can access the information they need quickly, it can help to maintain CX and boost NPS/C-SAT for both retailers and carriers, protecting that precious brand experience. Most importantly, it reduces WISMO queries, taking the pressure off customer service teams. 

Build that in-store buzz online

The pandemic means that the Golden Quarter is set to be bigger in the ecommerce space than ever before. A challenge for retailers will be transferring the traditional in-store buzz onto their digital platforms. Shopping in-store is fully immersive, so retailers need to create a seamless digital customer experience that goes way beyond the point of purchase. 

This is particularly important for those customers shopping online for the first time. While those aged 18 to 34 are most likely to increase their online shopping, more than 40% of over-55s have also done the same. As more and more people become digitally literate, there’s a whole host of new customers to impress. The jolly festive season will be a prime opportunity for retailers to make their mark and care for the shoppers who are new to ecommerce.  

For example, we’ve seen retailers adopt omnichannel options, such as ship from store innovation to utilise store inventory and space, offering customers fast, more efficient and flexible delivery to meet expectations. It’s this sort of physical and online fusion which is allowing retailers to tackle global logistical challenges, meet the huge demand online and revolutionise delivery for their customers with a more localised approach.

A peak like no other

The most common view for Golden Quarter 2020 is that the proportion of online retail will continue to increase against last year, but the ‘peak’ itself will be less pronounced – extending over a longer period as consumers normalise online shopping.

That said, globally, the numbers are pretty astounding. According to research from Accenture, European ecommerce delivered a 71% increase in online orders, while Asia-Pacific ecommerce rose 82% and sales in the US leapt by almost 93% in May.  Even here at Sorted, we witnessed a 1700% increase in shipment volume through the platform in Q2 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019. Essentially, retailers will have to be resilient in the face of this pressure, taking measures to be able to withstand this increase in traffic and tackling the delicate balancing act of servicing the deluge of orders whilst keeping customers happy.

Consistency is key

The final mile of 2020 is well underway, and retailers have already fought a good fight with plenty of unexpected hurdles throughout the year. Yet, with lockdown 2 upon us, the battle is far from won. As the year comes to a close, changes to the retail sector are unlikely to be radical or drastic – instead, it will be refinements and enhancements that will have the greatest impact. For now, it’s about ensuring all customers – new and old – have the doorstep experience they expect. 

At the end of the day, excellent customer service equates to one thing: retailers need to reliably meet supply demand, provide an easy, efficient end-to-end experience and keep being totally transparent with customer comms. While the pandemic has altered a lot of things, that rule won’t be going anywhere.