It’s been long understood that an easy, friction-free shopping experience is a clear route to online success. But in a rapidly shifting landscape, what does that look like? What does “convenience” actually mean in today’s context?
The truth is, there is still more to be done to improve the experience offered online - and more traditional retail experiences still offer some advantages.
As we know, the retail sector has transformed and reorganised itself over the last twelve months. Non-essential retailers have shuttered physical stores and moved operations online, if they hadn’t done so already. To some extent, these changes simply accelerated existing trends, with the steady rise of ecommerce.
Retailers have also had to adapt to fluctuations in demand and changes to the goods people are looking to buy. Few lives remain unchanged by the pandemic, after all. But in the rush to adapt to new needs, retailers mustn’t lose sight of what customers value.
For shoppers, there are plenty of advantages when it comes to ecommerce. Not least an almost endless choice of goods, and access to fast, simple payment methods. Shopping from the comfort of home quickly and easily, at any time of day or night, all while browsing editorial content and online advice for inspiration and to make more informed buying decisions are all highly valued.
But there are still some areas where online falls short, compared to the High Street. And it’s these that retailers should focus attention on as we emerge out of lockdown.
For example, returns. Free and easy returns are a staple of online retail. They’re the table stakes, especially in categories which see a high volume of returns such as fashion and footwear.
But they are still an area customers find difficult. Our January research told us that returning items bought online is still time-consuming and a hassle, given lockdown restrictions. As a result, UK shoppers were sitting on a backlog of goods waiting to be returned to retailers with a value of some £2.4 billion.
For all the perks of online, there are still better experiences available on the High Street, where goods can be easily exchanged or refunds obtained quickly when making returns. And, of course, when buying items here people get them immediately, without waiting for delivery.
These emotional, experiential and instant real-life transactions have not been forgotten by consumers when they shop online or the benefits of them are being sacrificed.
Make no mistake, there is the opportunity to do better. If online retailers want to keep the additional customers they’ve gained during lockdown, the race is on to develop a more High Street-like and better experience online in these areas.
To do this, they need to leverage new infrastructure.
For example, newer types of self-service, out of home delivery options must be more widely adopted by retailers, including lockers and parcel shops. These support the easy collection and return of items on customers’ terms. Next generation delivery can’t depend on people being at home or at work to take receipt of deliveries; it means facilitating delivery and returns around their lives and giving them the power to undertake these where and when they want.
New and innovative payment methods, that support immediate fund transfers and credit, will also help. Our research shows a huge appetite for faster refunds when returning goods. People are more cautious about spending whilst they are waiting for a refund on goods they’ve returned to a retailer. So the quicker and easier retailers can make the returns process, the better for everyone.
A bigger emphasis on leveraging local inventory - specifically store stock - to drive faster delivery, especially in urban areas, is also needed. Much like the dark kitchens that support food delivery in cities, we can expect to see greater reliance on retail stock to support faster fulfilment and returns.
Underpinning all of this is a need to build a more sustainable ecommerce operation, one that takes into account pollution, congestion and packaging. While ecommerce has been even more important during restrictions around Covid, it’s equally evident that the quantity of home deliveries currently happening just isn’t sustainable - the impact on the environment and local communities is too great.
We are seeing a structural shift and world order take shape in retail, the winners as always are likely to be those who embrace it. It’s time for online retailers to go even further with convenience. As such incredible touchpoints with a brand, areas like delivery and returns are too important to get wrong.
Jason Tavaria, UK CEO at InPost