When a group of retailers met to discuss the future of online fulfilment, all accepted there’s work to be done to improve delivery options. By Joanna Perry

Customer demands have evolved quickly, but one area where retailers will admit that the industry has struggled to keep up with is when it comes to fulfilment of online orders.

At a round table debate hosted by Home Delivery Network (HDNL) this month, Liberty managing director of online Guy Hipwell said that he is put off buying online if he has to hang around all day to wait for a product to be delivered and if this is the case then he won’t make the purchase.

My-Wardrobe.com chief operating officer Andrew Curran also sees customers’ expectations in this area rising. He said that customers used to accept their orders taking two to three days to be delivered, but that is no longer the case. Next day delivery is almost a minimum expectation and Curran said that there is also a growing expectation of free delivery among the designer fashion e-tailer’s customers.

Justin Cooke, managing director of digital agency Fortune Cookie and chair of the British Interactive Media Association, said that retailers need to look at their messaging around customer service, because what’s most annoying for customers is when expectations are set and then not met.

Aurora Fashions head of brand logistics and multichannel Greville Lushington said: “Customer expectations are quite dangerous at times.” At Aurora the womenswear brands are his customers – as well as the consumers buying the items – and he has to temper internal demand for services such as timed deliveries.

Lushington said customers need to realise that the service they get on a quiet day might not be the same as on a peak trading day, but this is difficult because they can’t see how many other customers are placing orders on the site. Customers don’t understand why it might be too costly to offer certain services. Lushington said: “Customers don’t understand the true mechanics of it.”

HDNL sales and marketing director Mike Snell said retailers present delivery options back to front compared with how customers would like to see them. Customers aren’t advised about delivery charges and options until the end of the transaction, but this can be just as important in the overall decision-making process as the product and its price. Snell pointed out how online grocery services offer customers the chance to book their delivery slot before they decide what they are going to buy.

His colleague, IT director Chris Airey, said that retailers could make more use of the services HDNL already offers, such as the free SMS service the company launched, which allows retailers to offer customers text message updates on their delivery. However, he added that take-up among retailers has been low so far, as they “don’t want to share customers’ mobile phone numbers”.

Airey has been in charge of a £30m investment in IT to support the development and roll-out of new services. He pointed out that its partnership with PayPoint means that customers will be able to offer the option of a delivery being made to one of 5,000 convenience stores.

The issue of whether deliveries can be left in a safe place also came up. HDNL said that it has a 99.9 per cent success rate for deliveries that can be left in a safe place. But as many retailers require a proof of delivery this is not always an option.

Andrew Ransford, managing director of jewellery retailer Hiho Silver, gave the example of an organic produce retailer that makes a first-time customer book a specific delivery slot so that when their delivery is made the customer can show the retailer where to leave future deliveries if they are out.

Airey added that HDNL can also accept special delivery instructions at the point when the order is placed, but it cannot change delivery instructions afterwards as it can’t verify a customer’s identity when they ring up the call centre and this could pose a fraud risk.

Harvey Nichols used to have a problem with the delivery of gifts – where the recipient might not be expecting a delivery. The luxury retailer’s e-commerce manager Rob Jones said that with more proactive management of the delivery process it has significantly decreased the levels of gifts that are returned because of failed deliveries.

At Harvey Nichols, after one delivery card is left its call centre rings the gift purchaser so they can contact the person they have sent the gift to and make sure they rearrange delivery.

And where it fails to deliver an item as planned Jones recommends pre-empting any complaint by contacting the person who it should have been delivered to, explaining the error and refunding the delivery charge as soon as it is made aware that a delivery has not been attempted when it should. Jones said: “Customers have high expectations of luxury retailers. They expect you to move heaven and earth to deliver their order.”

He added that if delivery becomes free then a reimbursement of the delivery cost will no longer be possible, and retailers will have to offer more when they fail to deliver as planned.

Hipwell agreed with the idea of keeping customers as up to date on what’s happening with a delivery as possible. He said that to crack customer communication, retailers need to have quality information flowing to them from their delivery partners at speed. Hipwell said: “If the driver is late then let us know, not just the customer.”

Airey said that HDNL pushes out data from its real-time GPS system, but few retailers are picking it up more than a couple of time a day. He is planning to take the company’s use of GPS much further with an application linked to Google Maps, which will show where a package is on its delivery journey. This will go live within HDNL’s call centres in July and by January next year an iframe version of the tool will be produced that retailers can embed on their site – an iframe is a box or section on a website that constantly shows and updates content from other sites.

Curran said he would “welcome an iframe application with our branding and all the information so we can provide the customer with actual knowledge of where the parcel is”. He added that this will cut down call centre traffic that is very costly to retailers.

Another point raised by Cooke was that retailers should go out with a delivery driver for a day to get a better understanding of what they face.

Hipwell said: “Everyone is interested in the sexy stuff. The lorries are the bit that gets missed out in the whole user journey. It always stops before that.” He added: “You can control a certain bit, but few can control the front-end right through to the fleet.”

This raised the point of whether drivers working for fulfilment companies should present themselves as working for the retailer they are delivering on behalf of. Snell was adamant: “We want to be an extension of our clients’ brand, an industry brand not a consumer brand.”

Hipwell concluded that part of the problem with order fulfilment is the model is still that the customer selects from a menu of delivery options of a retailer’s choosing, rather than the customer being able to tell the retailer how they want their order fulfilled.

Ransford summed up the retailer perspective to HDNL: “You are asking us to say more about delivery upfront, and we are going to ask you to be more flexible.”

If retailers and delivery providers such as HDNLcan keep up this level of communication and collaboration, then there is no reason why delivery – the last hurdle to online ordering – should have to continue to be a barrier.

In association with Home Delivery Network