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GUEST COMMENT Peak period paranoia: managing Black Friday across multiple channels

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Whilst consumers are just starting to pull together their shopping lists, retailers have been preparing and bracing themselves for Black Friday, a seasonal shopping peak that has been growing in the UK since 2013, for months. The notorious deals day is now whipping up more shopping enthusiasm than the Christmas period. If retailers were predicting (or perhaps hoping) that the US craze would start to slow down across the pond, they need to think again.

Over the past few years, Black Friday mayhem has stretched – firstly into Cyber Monday and then into an elongated period of discounting. If they play their cards right, there is the potential for retailers to develop sustained customer loyalty for months and years to come. Get it wrong though, and it could be a long-term disaster.

Looking at last year, there is certainly scope for retailers to improve. So what have we learnt from 2015?

1. The rise of mobile is rapid and increasingly important

According to IMRG statistics, last year, 45% of online traffic came from mobile devices on Black Friday. With almost half of consumers opting to browse, order and purchase from their smartphone, tablet or wearable, focus is clearly shifting from websites and physical stores to apps and mobile-optimised sites. If retailers don’t adjust their own strategy accordingly, they risk missing out a huge volume of sales.

2. The digital experience requires equal preparation

In 2014, the news was awash with scenes of havoc across stores, with rioting in Tesco and fighting over TVs in ASDA. In 2015, the chaos went digital, with websites struggling to cope with the inevitable spikes in online traffic. With more and more consumers choosing to browse deals online and on mobile, one in five ecommerce websites went down before 9am on the morning of Black Friday 2016. Major retailers such as John Lewis, Boots and Argos suffered web and app outages before most consumers had even finished their morning coffee. Retailers may have got their in-store experience under control for peak shopping periods; now they need to focus on the digital element.

3. It’s always all about the customer

Ensuring infrastructure is in place to deliver a pleasant shopping experience on the day is one thing. However, with the rise of digital and mobile shopping, the pressure on retailers doesn’t ease until deliveries are out the door and returns have been managed. A key learning from last year is that the ultimate disappointment for consumers is delays in order processing and deliveries. It’s crucial that retailers don’t promise the world to customers if they can’t follow through. This year, creating a solid, reliable supply chain should be a key priority.

A lot can change in a year

Consumer behaviour is constantly evolving and in the lightening-fast world of retail, businesses need to be two steps ahead of the curve just to keep up. In today’s market, the average consumer uses five devices each and when there are deals available, they will use a combination to browse and then buy. Multiple channels can be a minefield for retailers who haven’t adjusted to these new shopping habits.

So what can retailers do differently this year to meet the unprecedented demand that comes from all avenues during this period?

Micro-manage logistics across multiple touchpoints

Performance issues and website outages should be a thing of the past in 2016. Retailers need to refresh their IT infrastructure, network, cloud platforms and data centre infrastructure. A flexible network ensures retailers can quickly adapt to individual consumer expectations, whatever they are, even when website traffic is at a record high.

Product information and pricing need to be clear, accurate and consistent across multiple channels. A mobile shopper may find a deal on their desktop, check product information on their smartphone and try and make a payment in-store. Retailers need to pre-empt this channel-hopping and ensure the customer experience is seamless and consistent.

Follow through and deliver the results promised

Deliveries and returns are already the bane of online retail. Add Black Friday pressure into the mix and the strain on retailers multiplies. Getting deliveries out the door isn’t the endpoint – the customer journey only ends when the parcel is in the consumer’s hands, so retailers need to control as much of the journey as possible through a centrally-managed delivery system. If a parcel doesn’t arrive, the customer doesn’t blame the courier – it’s the brand’s reputation that ultimately suffers. As the world of crowd-sourcing delivery logistics grows, this becomes a bigger challenge.

A key way for retailers to manage customer expectations is to monitor orders being made in real-time. Once the maximum orders have been accepted for express/next day delivery then the retailer should disable that option. In peak shopping periods, retailers shouldn’t have to bargain on the product arriving at an unrealistic time if they can remove this unnecessary pressure on their delivery and fulfilment services.

Bridge the divide between physical and digital

The proliferation of delivery options has increased customer choice and the demand for this offers retailers the opportunity to take advantage of the physical store. A crucial consideration, in the age of digital, is using delivery options to push footfall in-store. By offering click and collect, retailers can capitalise on their physical presence to support their digital infrastructure, simultaneously driving in-store sales and increasing convenience for the customer.

In 2016 we have also seen online retailers partnering with organisations to offer a similar option. For example, earlier this year, Amazon teamed up with Barclays to offer online shoppers the opportunity to pick up their items in parcel lockers in their bank. Whether a retailer has a physical presence or not, the digital and in-store experience should come together to ease pressure on the supply chain as well as offer benefits to the busy customer.

The rising tide of digital shouldn’t be perceived as a threat to the physical retailer; it is an opportunity and an ally. The ultimate goal this year is to create a mutually supportive relationship between retailers’ in-store and online counterparts.

The growing popularity of Black Friday proves the undeniable appeal of a good bargain. With this year’s peak period set to last from Black Friday to Cyber Monday and beyond, retailers need to assess last year’s takeaways and start preparing early. Whilst it’s easy to get caught up in offering the most competitive deals during the week, it’s vital that retailers see this peak shopping period as a foundation for real customer engagement. By providing considered deals, ensuring a seamless shopping experience and fulfilling delivery demand, businesses have the opportunity to build solid foundations and lasting customer loyalty.

Mark Denton is head of retail propositions at Aptos Retail

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