Fulfilment – the key to plugging the physical disconnect online

The past year has seen the retail environment turned upside down. Following an ongoing period of lockdown restrictions, retailers are now being faced with a burgeoning physical disconnect between themselves and their customers. For months, online shopping was the only option for non-essential items and as a result, consumers started missing the more tangible aspects of the retail experience. This left brands scrambling to preserve the connections needed to maintain loyalty.

Watch out for the dissatisfied customer

Our latest research illustrates how consumers became increasingly disillusioned by the online performance of their favourite and preferred brands in 2020. Over a third (35%) complained they had such an unsatisfactory shopping experience with a previously trusted brand, that they had moved on to a competitor. Younger participants revealed themselves as the most fickle of all consumers, with 63% of Gen Z consumers jumping ship. Slow delivery, lack of available stock and difficult returns processes were all cited as common frustrations.

Long-held loyalty crumbled during lockdown due to a disconnect between physical offerings and online experiences hastily put together by retailers – often due to a case of a lack of engagement. Almost a quarter (23%) of consumers agreed that online stores either didn’t do enough to engage with them, that they only wanted their money and didn’t care about their satisfaction.

The physical/digital divide

Even on its organic trajectory, consumer expectations pre-pandemic around online perks were extending far beyond convenience and accessibility. The pandemic only accelerated this. Consumer’s exposure to disruptive start-ups and alternative global brands skyrocketed.

Some elements simply cannot be tangibly replicated digitally. Out of the aspects that four-in-five (80%) of consumers said they were missing, perhaps inevitably, were not being able to physically touch products (43%) and not being able to test certain items for suitability across aspects such as size or colour (41%).

Of course, retailers are not completely oblivious to these inherent shortfalls. We’ve seen the rise of self-service online tools such as website chatbots to address customer service cravings, or augmented reality to bring a sense of tangibility to products such as sunglasses or cosmetics in the past 12 months. FAQ pages have become more informative, and product and item descriptions have become clearer, both assisting in the purchasing and delivery process as well as minimising customer returns.

But there is clearly more to be done to satisfy today’s shopper – and there is more brands can do to alleviate challenges.

Plugging the gap with effective fulfilment

Brands need to act fast, preventatively not reactively, to strike a chord with customers and fulfilment is a key differentiator that brands should be leveraging. In this era of consumers becoming – quite rightly – more aware of their environmental impact, their carbon footprint and how a product is packaged and delivered is increasingly a determining factor. PFS’ research found that 64% of consumers would be more loyal to brands that provide them with delivery timeframe options, whilst 52% would prefer to shop with companies that help them to minimise their carbon footprint. The option of buying and returning in-store, or using click and collect when shopping online is also becoming popular.

Most retailers have now got their point of sale (POS) to a satisfactory standard. However, they are more likely to hit the mark with consumers based on value-add considerations. Brands need to put themselves in their consumers’ shoes and understand the specific drivers of each demographic.

Questions to be asked going forward should include:

  • How quickly does our customer demographic want their purchase to be delivered and what can we do to make that happen?
  • Can we give consumers flexibility over delivery timeframes?
  • Can our inventory and stock facilitate both online and in-store availability of packaging, to add further value to the customer experience?
  • How simple and sustainable is our returns system and what can we do to minimise returns?
  • How ethical or environmentally conscious is our supply network?

Today’s consumers want it all. A strong POS experience won’t offset poor fulfilment options, and vice versa. Retailers need to ensure that they tick all the boxes of the post-pandemic consumer to guarantee long-term brand connections.

Time to thrive

In order to not only survive, but thrive, retailers need to be analysing and taking back control of their supply chains. Crucial to this will be identifying solutions that can help further elevate the post-click process. Ensuring a greater range of products are available to consumers quickly is essential in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace, and this will be underpinned by accessibility. Considering the needs of both the veteran online shopper as well as the novice is also important to ensure success online – but not at the cost of losing sight of your brand’s core customer demographic. Brands must focus on achieving operational excellence by ensuring all processes are optimised, reducing any friction that might impact the speed, condition and overall delivery experience of the product. These elements will prove make-or-break for brand loyalty, and leave a lasting impression on the customer.

Unfortunately, there will always be parts of the in-store experience that cannot be replicated digitally. Instead, brands should take back ownership where they can, and this starts with fulfilment. Whilst many brands are focused on ensuring their online platforms are up to scratch, it seems that the barriers to brand loyalty are as much to do with a brand’s warehouse as their POS. The key to overcoming the barriers to brand loyalty will be to facilitate flexibility and choice. The more options that the consumer is presented with when it comes to how they receive their order, the more likely they are to remember that ease and variety, and return time and time again.

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