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How retailers and their suppliers are acting to withstand the Christmas rush

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No sooner had we outlined Argos’ strategy for smoothing the peaks and troughs of pre-Christmas online shopping through a series of weekend-long events, than news came that its website had gone down on the first Sunday of its ‘Red Friday’ weekend, leaving customers frustrated, according to reports.

The retailer has apologised for what it described as “temporary service issues” that it had now resolved – though it still has customer enquiries and potential home delivery issues to deal with. But the event serves as an early warning to all retailers of the importance of being well prepared for Black Friday, and comes as Webloyalty predicts that the UK will collectively spend £16.5bn this Christmas – or £442 for the average person.

So how can traders act to stay ahead of potential issues this Christmas? Here’s what experts have to say.

Handling website performance

Internet performance company Dyn says downtime not only halts sales but also damages a brand’s reputations. “Online retailers face higher expectations from shoppers who expect the site to be secure, fast and reliable at all times, and downtime means they turn to a competitor,” says Dyn EMEA managing director Paul Heywood. But he says traders who have the right technology in place can monitor, control and optimise their online infrastructure both during high volume sales, and also during everyday trading. “Focusing on internet performance,” he says, “means that retailers can deliver great customer experience consistently, which is imperative to build brand loyalty.”

Meanwhile, Peter Veash, chief executive of The BIO Agency, said: “Argos’ website glitch over the weekend clearly shows that brands need to ensure their systems are all up and running and can handle a spike in sales, especially at Christmas!”

Managing logistics

Last Black Friday was marked by an overwhelming volume of orders that caused what IMRG later described as a ‘retail tsunami’. This year retailers and logistics businesses have been working closely together to ensure that there isn’t a repeat.

Yodel is one carrier that has outlined its measures in this regard. It says its own research has shown that up to four times as many consumers expect to take part in Black Friday promotions this year, with three quarters of shoppers planning to buy at least of their presents online. Yodel is learning from experience: last Black Friday it had to suspend parcel collections briefly after its distribution centres got too busy to handle the volume of goods passing through. It has also worked with retailers – both with their marketing departments as well as their logistics staff – to agree how many parcels it will accept into its network each day, while also capping its next-day delivery capacity.

This year it has expanded its service centres, launched a new website, introduced user-friendly parcel tracking, and ahead of peak it is bringing in 200 extra lorries and 500 trailers to move parcels from retailers’ warehouses to its central sorting areas, before they go on to local service centres for onward delivery. It has also taken on 7,000 extra people.

“Last year’s 24 hour flash sales caused tidal waves of parcels as overloaded trailers arrived each day over the cyber weekend. Simply by spreading the duration of the sales and offering a wider range of delivery options, rather than using 24 hours delivery as the default service for all orders, retailers can instantly help to create more capacity in the parcel industry and enable us to offer a consistent, high standard and cost-effective service during peak periods,” said Dick Stead, executive chairman of Yodel .

DPD has also set out its stall, as it prepares for what it sees as fifty days of peak. It is planning for volumes to be 30% up on the same time last year between Black Friday and the January sales, and has opened new hubs, depots, improved technology and taken on and trained 950 new, permanent drivers, while also setting up and growing a pick-up parcel shop network, whose members include Halfords, Doddle shops, and the Rowlands and Numark chemist chains.

DPD chief executive Dwain McDonald said: “We’ve been talking in detail with our customers, who include many of the biggest retailers in the country, and it is clear that from Black Friday, right through to the January sales, this year is going to break all records for online shopping. For us, that means millions of parcels that have to be delivered, right first time.”

He added: “For me the key to handling volume is around being more efficient. The latest fully automated hubs and depots help us manage higher volumes in the network, while being a seven day a week operation means we are constantly moving everything through the system avoiding build-ups over the weekend. Out on the road, we’ll send over 50 million advanced notifications during Peak, and the real time responses our drivers receive from recipients mean that before they attempt a delivery, they already know who’s in or out and what they want us to do with their parcel, which saves a huge amount of time.”

MetaPack , the ecommerce delivery technology business, says the retail industry and its logistics partners are much better prepared for this year’s peak period, which will be the biggest to date. It predicts that next-day delivery offers will be replaced this year by deliveries managed over a longer time span.

“We can see already that retailers have adopted new strategies and are putting in place mechanisms that will help to spread the delivery load over a much longer period of time,” says Kees de Vos, chief product officer at MetaPack. “This will avoid the unnecessary pressure on logistics and courier services immediately following Black Friday and the Christmas/Boxing Day sales. Retailers know that delivery is a vital part of their offer to customers and that it is absolutely essential to meet their delivery promises, so we doubt that all will be offering next-day delivery, for example, on Black Friday.”

Opting out

Supermarket Asda is reported not to be taking part in Black Friday this year. The move is an ironic since Asda, with its parent company Walmart, was one of the first to introduce the tradition to the UK. Last year the company was tainted by reports of shoppers fighting over its seasonal offers – and this year Andy Clarke told the BBC that: “The decision to step away from Black Friday is not about the event itself. Over the last two years we’ve developed an organised, well-executed plan, but this year customers have told us loud and clear that they don’t want to be held hostage to a day or two of sales.”

Commenting, Jamie Merrick, head of industry insights at Demandware, said: “”The retail fight for the Christmas share of wallet is more complex than ever this year. Black Friday spend is going to be big, but a change in marketing strategy could help supermarkets avoid the one-day bargain tussle. Big ticket sales items lure customers into stores, and help supermarkets secure their sales of turkeys and groceries over the entire festive period. So, spreading the shopping experience makes sense from this perspective.

“If retailers are to make the most out of this busy shopping period, offering the right deals, at the right time, across all channels – will be key to Christmas success. Catering for an increasingly digital audience is critical. The Christmas sparkle will come from a shift towards a seamless customer experience that spans across every retail touch point therefore online shopping and m-commerce needs to increase in sophistication as consumers seek a more personalised experience.”

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