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Thinking strategically

The Top500 crowd is starting to catch up with the leaders. Across this year’s index, there’s evidence that retailers are moving at speed to adopt best practice approaches to multichannel selling. Latest research for the Strategy & Innovation Dimension shows retailers making it easier for shoppers to buy via mobile, across channels and via convenient delivery and collection services.

More are now providing a strong service as standard. But it’s telling that the research also shows significant numbers stepping back from super-fast and convenient collection services, and even from some delivery and returns services. Perhaps that’s because those not offering the best service in their sector have found it did not prove economic to compete in this way.

RetailX researchers aim to understand in the Strategy & Innovation Dimension how Top500 retailers are serving their customers and to recognise those that are using the latest technologies and retail services to provide multichannel convenience and the best customer experience. They have analysed Top500 traders’ performances against more than 50 metrics that they judge have the potential to improve service and set best practice standards. They consider approaches and technologies that are already well-established as well as those that are emerging. Those metrics are taken from across Top500 research, assessing performance in cutting-edge areas, from merchandising and operations and logistics to brand engagement and mobile and cross-channel.

Below, we look in depth at retail performance across business-critical measures. Delivery, collection and returns enable shoppers to take ownership of and, if necessary, return their goods in the most convenient manner. How products are presented to smartphone users matters because zoomable images and predictive search both enable customers to make purchase decisions with confidence. Checkouts that work, stock checking and recommendations and a wide variety of customer communication channels all go to improve customer service and the customer experience, however they choose to engage. 


Most retailers now offer customers next-day delivery and the ability to collect online orders in-store. But RetailX research shows a row-back in the numbers currently offering more sophisticated fulfilment services.


In 2020, fast and convenient next-day delivery is offered by 61% of Top500 retailers. But other potentially convenient delivery options remain cutting edge. A minority of traders offer Saturday (26%), Sunday (11%) or nominated day (13%) delivery. Still fewer offer nominated time (5%), or same-day delivery – those that do stand out in the research as a result. The research also found that 55% of retailers show their fulfilment options on the landing page in 2020, while 69% do so on the product page.


More than half of retailers (54%) now offer shoppers the ability to collect in-store the items they ordered online. But same-day collection (6%) and collection in-store from the retailer’s own lockers (1%) both remain the preserve of leading retailers. Retailers offer collection in an average of 94 hours (almost four days) – and a median of 72, or three days.

By law, retailers must accept returns within 14 days of an online purchase. However, this year’s research suggests that how those returns can be made is becoming less flexible. In 2020, 43% of UK Top500 retailers enable traders to return an online order to the store, down by five percentage points from 48% a year earlier. The fastest category declines are among direct-selling brands, where 42% offer the service, down by 8pp from 50% last year, jewellery (-8pp to 48%), and trade and DIY equipment and tools (-8pp to 39%). The sectors where the service is most commonly offered include children’s toys and accessories (58%), fashion clothing, accessories, footwear and groceries (all 52%), while it is least available among those selling consumer electronics and health (both 31%). This fall in the number of retailers offering return to store is surprising to RetailX head of research, Martin Shaw. “This service seems a key part of multichannel retail,” he says, “but perhaps just not enough shoppers were using the service, compared to the number opting to return by post, to make it worth maintaining the infrastructure.”

Offering the option of checking out through a third-party checkout provider can make it easier for shoppers who don’t want to share their details – yet it is still a minority option. The most popular is PayPal, offered by 31% of Top500 retailers, but Amazon Pay and Facebook checkout are each offered by 9% of them. Some 44% of retailers show payment options on the landing page, while 23% enable one-click ordering, which will require shoppers to have previously saved their payment details on the retail website.

Stock checking and recommendations

RetailX researchers track the extent to which Top500 retailers help customers explore their range through stock checkers and product recommendations. They found that 75% of retailers recommend similar products, and 28% enable customers to check store stock. More than half (56%) enable shoppers to add a product to a wishlist.

Customer communication channels
Top500 retailers this year enable their customers to engage with them via ten different communication channels, from email and telephone to various social media platforms.

Presenting products to smartphone users
The relatively small size of smartphone screens make it a priority for retailers to enable their customers to quickly find products. Predictive search and zoomable product images also help in that quest.


Predictive search makes it easier for app users to find the products they are looking for. As they start to type in the search box, suggested search terms appear. There’s been a fast uptake of this among Top500 retailers over the last year, with 38% of retailers with mobile apps now including it in their apps – a rise of 10pp from 28% last year. “This feature,” says Shaw, “makes navigation much quicker and the fact that top retailers have been doing it for years means it’s something consumers now expect.”
The fastest uptake came in retail categories where the details might be more important, while no categories decreased their use of predictive search. Some 45% of those selling jewellery use this technology in 2020, up by 23pp on last year. Other fast rises came among those selling cosmetics (+17pp to 52%) and fashion clothing (+17pp to 48%). Predictive search is most widely used in the sports and outdoor equipment sector (61%), homewares (59%) and least commonly by direct-selling brands (25%). “Perhaps there’s less need for it as many brands don’t have the large SKU ranges that make it most helpful,” says RetailX’s Shaw. More widely used is the autocomplete dropdown, which suggests terms that shoppers might use to search a mobile website.
Visual search is still very much an emerging technology – only 8% of retailers use it in 2020. By contrast, 94% of retailers offer a three-line ‘hamburger’ button, enabling shoppers to navigate mobile websites more easily.

Zoomable product images
When shoppers can zoom in to product images on their smartphones, they see more detail of an item they are considering buying. Top500 retailers appear to have recognised the way this helps their customers’ experience, overwhelmingly adding this feature to their mobile websites over the last year, according to the latest RetailX research. It found that 70% of the 490 Top500 retailers measured in both periods now use it. That’s a rise of 13pp on the 57% that did so last year. Shaw said the feature needed to be implemented skilfully if it was to be useful to customers. “On mobile devices especially, product imagery needs to be full width and high resolution, while not significantly impacting on visual load times and time-to interaction, to be competitive,” he said.
RetailX research shows that in 2020, every retail category adopted zoomable images, with the fastest growth among grocers (+24pp to 81% of 21 Top500 grocery retailers), and those selling stationery and craft (+21pp to 64% of 32 traders). Despite the growth, stationery and craft remained, however, the category where zoomable images on mobile websites were least likely to be used. The feature was most commonly found in the sports and outdoor equipment (85%), health (84%) categories and in grocery (81%).

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