Following what can only be described as a turbulent start to the year, recent weeks have seen green shoots of recovery for retail. In fact, last month, sales were up 3.9% compared with August last year – showing many businesses rebounding from lockdown.

As the dust begins to settle, and a potentially record-breaking peak season on the horizon, new opportunities for growth emerge for the brands who have remained afloat over the last six months. Most have been forced to adapt and many have come back stronger as a result. Following a soar in online shopping during the lockdown, many brands and retailers are accelerating their online retail plans to help future-proof their businesses and meet changing consumer demand as COVID-19 accelerates the shift to online retail.

Success online, however, is not without its challenges. Being able to offer the same level of service, but on a larger scale, requires careful planning, along with full visibility and traceability across the supply chain. It is these two elements though, that are often lost in the rush for growth.

So, how can these growing businesses scale-up effectively whilst maintaining visibility and traceability?

Delivering on customer expectations

Whilst expectations on delivery times have eased slightly during the pandemic, consumers still expect their items to reach them quickly. PFS’ recent research found seven in ten (71%) shoppers still expect their items to reach them within a week (compared to 90% normally).

Breaking this down further, 14% expect their items to be delivered in no more than two days during the lockdown (compared to 29% normally) and 29% expect deliveries to take no more than three to five days (compared to 36% normally).

Offering a range of delivery options at different price points, with clear estimates or even a choice of delivery dates can help set expectations and provide the service that most suits that customer. PFS research has also found that nearly three-quarters of consumers expect online retailers and brands to use recyclable packaging (73%) or minimise their use of packaging (74%), so it’s important to make customers aware of how their product will be packaged.

As we head towards peak shopping times and promotional periods, this can play a huge part in the likely lifecycle of a product too. Research shows that Generation Z (35%) and Millennials (33%) are more likely to purchase and return more goods between Black Friday and Christmas, compared to just 19% overall. Once they’ve clicked the buy button, however, the communication cannot stop.

Communication is key

PFS’ recent research report found that almost two-thirds (64%) of consumers are more likely to purchase items from online retailers and brands that stay in touch and offer frequent order updates. When broken down into the different age groups, it is the older generation who value this type of communication the most. Over two-thirds (69%) of the silent generation agree that they are most loyal to brands who stay in touch and keep them updated on the progress of their orders compared to 56% of Generation Z.

Ensuring you proactively keep customers informed of order delays or other potential issues, especially during higher volume periods, not only improves a brand’s reputation in the eyes of customers, it also helps mitigate excessively high volumes within the contact centre.

For example, during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, brands who were proactive in notifying customers about delays due to supply chain disruption or carrier limitations were able to set realistic customer expectations. For the most part, when adequately informed customers were much more understanding.

Brands are better equipped to provide this proactive communication when they maintain a holistic approach to eCommerce. Within an end-to-end operation, all areas of the business remain connected, from website design and email marketing, to fulfilment operations and customer service – and everything in between. When an issue comes up in the distribution centre, all areas are notified and can quickly perform the appropriate steps, such as updating the website, sending out email notifications, or simply informing customer service agents so they can best support customers. An end-to-end solution streamlines your eCommerce operations for a more seamless customer experience.

Catering for a range of purchasing methods

As the more conscious consumer continues to seek not only open communication and transparency, but products based on cost and conscience, non-traditional fulfilment methods will become increasingly embraced. Buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) functionality and ship-from-store technologies, for example, equip brands to better serve customers through an improved delivery experience during normal and peak periods. It’s essential however that the right back-office systems are in place to support these technologies. If a customer orders a product online to collect in-store, but then arrives to find a stock-keeping error means the item is not available, they are likely to be extremely unhappy.

Returns oversight

It’s essential to not only consider the purchasing experience, but the returns cycle as well. If brands make this process difficult, customers are likely to turn away. Three quarters (75%) of all consumers believe online retailers should expect higher levels of returns than stores, because you can’t physically see the product when buying. More than three fifths (62%) of online customers expect to be able to quickly and easily return products that are ill-fitting or unsuitable. A speedy returns process that keeps the customer updated on their refund will make the process painless for both the customer and the brand. Calls into a customer service centre to chase a refund cost time and money. DHL is predicting a surge in returns during peak 2020, considering it to be the most unpredictable peak season ever, while a study by eBay Advertising study has found that more than a quarter of UK shoppers plan to start shopping for Christmas earlier in 2020[1].

Giving customers a voice

When it comes to sharing shopping experiences with others, around half of consumers (49%) share negative online shopping experiences with friends and family. It is therefore increasingly important that brands’ customer service operations are equipped to help combat this negative sharing on social platforms.

Providing empathy training for customer service agents will help ensure angry customers feel heard when they interact with the brand directly. Frustrated customers who are denied the opportunity to voice their complaints through the contact centre will often take to social media forums instead. For complaints that do make it to social media, brands and retailers must be appeasement-centric, particularly when it comes to managing social platforms. Social listening should be a priority, it’s important to act quickly to appease customer complaints and minimise long-term repercussions to your brand’s image.

Laying the right foundations

Effective communication and transparency are vital to keeping customers engaged, particularly as a business grows. But this can become more challenging as a company evolves and can often become a lower priority, despite being top of the consumer agenda. Having systems and processes in place to enable visibility and traceability will help alleviate the pressures on brands during peak times and ensure that communication channels remain effective and fit for purpose as a brand grows.