When the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, retailers have one thing on their minds: preparing for the holiday peak season shopping rush.
While retailers have shifted their efforts from in-store to online, preparing for peak retail is no easy feat. Peak season begins on Black Friday and runs through early January, when there is a large wave of returns. This year alone, e-commerce sales are anticipated to grow 15.3 percent from the 2017 season, and U.S. shoppers will spend $119.99bn online in November and December. To accommodate this growth, retailers should have a plan in place for every part of the peak season for e-commerce execution from start to finish, beginning with hiring.
Staff Early, Staff Strong
Although seasonal staff only work for a couple months of the year, preparation for them begins as soon as the previous season concludes. Hiring can begin as early as May or June, and is heavily weighted on retailers' selling forecasts. As such, it's critical that businesses accurately calculate demand for the upcoming year, to ensure they are properly staffed to meet expectations around timely delivery.
The hiring process is especially challenging in a strong labor market, where fewer people are seeking seasonal positions. Creating a strong company culture with comprehensive benefits, work-life balance, and competitive wages will help to secure a strong workforce to support the influx of holiday orders, and potentially convert top talent to full-time employees after the rush.
Know Your Frenemies
It’s no secret that consumer expectations around shipping have shifted dramatically over the past several years. A recent study finds 34 percent of U.S. shoppers expecting two-day shipping, and 60 percent expect their goods to arrive at their doorstep at no additional cost. These expectations can be attributed to marketplace websites that have made the shopping process seamless for consumers. What’s more, they’ve become a “one-stop-shop” for everything from household goods to clothing and beauty products, and they eliminate the need for consumers to shop around on multiple websites or subscribe to multiple apps. These marketplaces have a great influence on the retail landscape, and offer the ease of navigation that consumers expect with regard to online transactions.
The numbers say it all: from a global perspective, 20 percent more American consumers hold memberships than any other English-speaking country at 72.6 percent, with Canada and the U.K. even (58.6 percent and 58.2 percent, respectively), and Australia close behind at 55.8 percent. To meet the expectations set by these marketplace sites, retailers need to find new ways to differentiate the experience they offer and provide value to their customers.
That said, marketplaces aren’t always considered the enemy. They can play an important role in launching an online business. Rather than working to outpace marketplaces, businesses should consider how they can leverage them as an avenue to sell their products.
For example, services such as Seller-Fulfilled Prime with Amazon enable companies to reap the benefits of the marketplace to capture market share, but can leverage their own inventory and supply chain. Some brands rely on these marketplaces for subsets of their assortment and liquidation of prior-season merchandise. These marketplaces can also serve as a launching pad to start a new brand. Once scale is achieved, they migrate to sell direct to their consumers and take their supply-chain capabilities off the “frenemy” platform.
Offer an Exceptional Experience
In today’s commoditized commerce landscape, it becomes critical to ensure that consumers walk away with an exceptional brand experience. By investing in a highly skilled customer care center with advanced systems, retailers can offer a positive experience, even for the inevitable challenges that come along with online commerce. Customer care representatives, who have a unified view of the consumer and insights into the supply chain, can pre-empt delays, anticipating things such as driver strikes or bad weather to provide proactive communications to customers and avoid challenges before they come to a head.
A recent report, which surveyed 3,000 consumers to better understand issues relating to retail e-commerce fulfillment and delivery trends, found that 43.8 percent of consumers around the globe expressed a preference for proactive communications for the entire shipping process. Tools such as transit notifications can help to meet this demand. They provide more transparency into returns and other supply-chain processes. Retailers should have an easy returns process in place for customers. This includes leveraging technology and operations to anticipate unforeseen events, and having a strategy for keeping customers happy throughout events that disrupt shipping.
In short, consumers want to know when and where their items are arriving. And if they’re not on time, brands must communicate delays and delivery updates proactively. If retailers can provide more transparency into supply-chain processes and embrace proactive communications, they’ll gain more trust from their consumers, and likely retain them as loyal brand advocates beyond the holiday season.
While available and well-informed representatives can never be replaced by technology, offerings such as chatbots and mobile-enabled interactive voice response tools can help to supplement customer care efforts. They’re able to satisfy consumer expectations of instant answers while freeing up service agents to handle more complicated consumer inquiries and issue resolution. In many cases, consumers prefer self-service options; it’s reported that 80 percent of consumers prefer to try self-service before contacting customer service.
By knowing their customers and preparing the workforce accordingly, retailers can enter the holiday season with full confidence. Preparing for peak season is no easy task, but with the right tools, partners and preparation, retailers can provide an exceptional experience that leaves their customers feeling assured ahead of the holidays.
Sean McCartney is executive vice president of operations services for Radial.
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