Covid-19 has brought supply and demand kicking and screaming to people’s attention. Whilst many retailers have had to temporarily shut up shop due to social distancing and lockdown requirements, others have been inundated; and consequently needed to deal with stresses and strains from the supply chain like never seen before.
A now common sight which used to be the reserve of Oxford Street or Bicester Village is queueing outside stores, waiting to be let in. Be it the supermarket, pharmacy, post office or bank, there are now lines of people patiently waiting their turn on the pavement. Interestingly, this is not just seen on UK high streets, it’s also translated online, with some retailers adopting a virtual queueing system to manage how many people are able to shop at once, to support social distancing measures in the warehouse and a reduced team to support the demand. Boots was one such retailer, deploying a simple counter to let shoppers know how long they’d have to wait to access its online inventory.
However, is there a risk in adopting this approach? Considering Brits are now having to queue more than ever before, there is a worry they will become weary of this measure, as the beauty of online is that it’s meant to be quick and easy. Adding a waiting time in peak periods goes against this mantra. Despite the fact we’ve arguably not had this much ‘time’ in years, people are still very precious about how they choose to spend it. This includes seeing how far back they are in a queue – there is a risk they will simply switch to a rival.
Considering we will likely be unable to shop ‘normally’ again for months, if not years to come, should retailers consider implementing a relatively easy switch to website operations, or retain their status quo? This simple tactic has multiple benefits for sure, so here are some considerations for those thinking about managing digital customer flow.
Firstly, it lets retailers get a handle on stock levels. Displaying accurate stock levels is one of the fundamentals of online retail, and displaying inaccurate information is a way to lose custom. This was confirmed in a recent Magento report, where consumers ranked retailers having the right products/sizes in stock as the third most important factor when shopping online, showing how simple accuracies matter. Plus, in times like these where the supply chain is not able to operate at its usual levels, it helps retailers have a clear view of demand, and put measures in place to help satisfy this need – prioritising what matters.
Slowing down front-end operations can also help the back end. Integrated order management software (OMS) and warehouse management systems (WMS) means online retailers will have a real-time view of supply and demand, meaning certain purchase orders can be prioritised and supply dates negotiated so everyone has accurate delivery timelines to work to. One consequence of the pandemic may be that retailers start sourcing more locally to ensure they can keep up with demand, but using software to trigger alerts when levels run low can help ensure lean operations – enabling a safe warehouse environment where social distancing is adhered to, but which also keeps up with demand. Hotel Chocolat has successfully implemented this approach; streamlining stock to meet demand but keep the workforce safe.
Second, it helps performance. Downtime is the scourge of digital operations, and with shoppers unable to access many of their favourite necessities in person, they’ve turned online to get them instead. This puts excess pressure on the infrastructure, which for some smaller retailers, unused to high volumes of traffic can be disastrous. However, limiting the number of people coming through the figurative door negates this threat, leaving retailers to operate online as normal, without drifting into danger in terms of processing power. Uptime helps to please customers; so whilst they might have to wait, it’s preferable to a 404 error message.
Third, it helps set expectations – another key online retail must. Not letting a shopper access a website with no reason will cause frustration. The result? Likely switching to a rival as when customers go to a website to buy, they have moved far enough down the sales funnel and will want to procure the item whether it’s with their desired retail partner or not. For retailers who have carefully nurtured the customer and spent money acquiring them, losing them at the final hurdle is catastrophic. Yes, some will wait until they can get on, but a visual aid letting them know how long it will be until they can access the website at least lets the customer know they are making progress. Likely it will only be a two- or five-minute wait, in which they could make a drink, but letting the customer know you haven’t forgotten about them – much like you would in-store – is a must.
Whilst none of us know what is going to happen from one day to the next, what we can be sure of is that online retail will be the cornerstone of the industry for the next 12 months. Older people will rely on it for staples, and many will choose to spend online from the safety of their armchair. What matters most, however, is that retailers are able to balance the Holy Grail of retail – user experience – with operations which ensure the health and wellbeing of their staff, the unsung heroes in the warehouse or delivering the goods. This pandemic may help reset customer expectations – forgoing next-day delivery for the safe delivery of products.
How we are shopping is changing; meaning there are opportunities for retailers who can deliver a frictionless experience whilst running a safe back-end operation. Whether that means implementing front-end integrations to limit numbers or not, the truth of the matter is that retail relies on its people, so they must be the ultimate deciding factor.
Tom Williams is head of ecommerce at Maginus
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Author image courtesy of Tom Williams/Maginus