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Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The recent travel mayhem as a result of snow across the UK has brought the topic of travel and – vitally at Christmas-time – delivery to the front of our collective minds in ecommerce. However, in addition to the trials and tribulations experienced in the final mile, the transport metaphor has been a fertile one as Ian Jindal considers the balance of service within multichannel retail.

THE PRE-CHRISTMAS snow was perfectly timed to remind those of an ecommerce persuasion how the glorious promise of a slick web front-end can founder upon the logistical realities of delivering (literally) upon one’s promises. Many in ecommerce had predictive delivery grief based simply upon concerns over network capacity to cope with the predicted increase in demand. More retailers online, higher levels of online purchasing and increasingly high levels of delivery promises – all powerful elements within a looming ‘perfect storm’ of too many people wanting too many products too soon… with too little time available before Santa hangs up his reindeer spurs and cracks open the postpudding port.

The customer, of course, was in a state of cognitive dissonance. One minute, shopping online to avoid the crowds; the next, scouring websites for store opening times, in-store stock availability and the phone number of the local stores! Despite the allure of the web – convenience, price, information – there’s no substitute for a store when you need to get your hands on Junior’s musthave Christmas toy!

Under the pressure of a crisis situation, the web held up well. Sites functioned, ordering was slick, all appeared fine… but the cracks between ecommerce front-end and logistical capability became all too clear. The lack of store-level, realtime stock information suddenly became important. When tracking orders, the rubric “Out for Delivery” in the normally-helpful track-and-trace systems rang resoundingly hollow. The abdication of delivery promise to most of Scotland reminded us that while the web might be universal and resilient, access to the M8 was not.

Stores seemed to fare better in some respects, and the transport analogy illustrates the difference in capability (and management approach?) between stores and ecommerce.

Ecommerce is like a railway: networked, highly connected, oozing efficiency and generally very predictable. The operational approach is towards efficiency and operational excellence, while continually cranking up the throughput or the ‘network capacity’. Bottlenecks and crashes are avoided, and the prevailing trend has been to higher and higher operating levels at reduced tolerances. However, when there’s an error or a problem it’s clear that the set processes fall down. Trains can but follow the set track. Furthermore, problems have immediate knock-on effects for other track users (can’t pass) and for line users (the train rolling stock is in the ‘wrong places’ for the service). Fundamentally, the characterisation is that of a machine, efficient when all goes well, but lacking in flexibility and with limited opportunity for say an individual train driver to make an impact.

Planes and boats – like shops, perhaps – have more individual flexibility. Once a ship leaves harbour the exact route is a matter of negotiation and the vessel is essentially independent until it docks. Staff can “manage” most situations, given open doors, some electricity and something to sell, motivated staff can overcome POS and till system glitches, network outage, loss of payment processing, partial out of stock and – in the glorious case of John Lewis in High Wycombe in 2009 – even accommodate 100 stranded customers in their bed department. Of course there are limits to this analogy, but the combination of resourceful staff and quasiautonomous operating lead to a level of resilience that’s not available online.

As 2011 bring further growth in digital channels, the challenge is to make the connection to our infrastructure more robust so that the web can be part of that responsive and connected customer response during abnormal situations. Improved tracking of deliveries, of stock information and ordering processes are necessary, as well as more elegant options for service degradation than on-site notices saying that nothing can be guaranteed.

It’s neither an easy nor a glamorous undertaking, but it’s the difference between being the captain of the ship and simply a passenger.

To all captains and crew on the Good Ship Multichannel, we at Internet Retailing wish you every success for a prosperous, smooth and stimulating journey in 2011.

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