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Building peak resilience – the key to navigating the first-ever ‘eCommerce Christmas’

Written by Joe Farrell, VP of international operations at PFS

For retail, 2020 has been a year unlike any other. From continued Brexit uncertainty to ongoing economic disruption because of the pandemic – all adding to the struggles of the already rapidly dissolving high street. Now, with all non-essential stores in England closed once again as part of a second national lockdown, retailers are facing the very real possibility of the first-ever ‘eCommerce Christmas’, with nearly all shopping having to take place online.

For growing brands, large-scale online promotions can seem daunting at the best of times – let alone in 2020, a year of uncertainty and epic change. Without careful planning and the availability of additional labour and resources, promotions can present a logistical nightmare for even the most well-established of brands. Thanks to the added pressures of political and economic uncertainty, along with increased online demand across categories, brands are facing the most challenging peak season yet.

Black Friday has a new name

In recent years, Black Friday deals have been starting earlier and earlier. In 2020, we’ve seen this taken to a new level with many deals starting as early as mid-October. Alibaba’s Singles Day, which began in China this year on November 11th, saw a record high – achieving $75 billion in sales over its 11 days. Brand competition is heightened as some retailers continue to try to stay ahead in the promotions game with a “Black November.”

In 2020, though, this is about more than the competition. For many retailers, the earlier deals are an effort to get the peak shopping season started sooner in hopes of flattening the demand curve. The aim is to better manage increased demand with engagement on a scale never seen before. For many brands, a sudden and sustained influx of peak orders could cause complete chaos – putting additional pressure on carriers who will inevitably struggle to keep up with such high demand. And, potentially leading to longer delivery times and dissatisfied customers as a result.

Up and coming online brands such as SHEIN, an apparel brand with an established global presence and which has steadily been growing in popularity in the UK over the last year, are way ahead of the Black November trend. SHEIN began their #OneMillionSHEINBucks campaign in alignment with “Early Black Friday” messaging shortly before Halloween. Their flash sale had a clear emphasis on ‘buy more save more’ and offered add-ons on each page to encourage “on the fly” bundling. This sort of stamina is manageable when a retailer is selling online only. However, for multi-channel brands with online stores and brick-and-mortar locations, there are other options.

Uncovering the risks to achieve peak resilience

To achieve resilience, brands need to be accepting of the new reality; the changes to social conduct – and the risks that accompany it. Being one step ahead is not enough anymore. Particularly for multi-channel brands maintaining storefronts as well as online shopping, having more than one contingency plan to deal with increased demand during peak is essential.

Multi-node fulfilment operations and temporary, pop-up distribution centres across various locations are beneficial to spread inventory and avoid further delays in the supply chain that may arise as a result of the pandemic. Shortening the supply chain in this way can vastly reduce the transit time for goods, therefore removing much of the uncertainty involved in last-mile delivery, minimising shipping delays and avoiding increased transportation costs.

The implementation of hybrid store models will also prove extremely valuable over the coming weeks and other periods of heightened demand in this new world of retail. Utilising closed stores as micro-fulfilment centres, retailers will be ideally positioned to keep up with online order demand with fast delivery. This makes more of the opportunity by reallocating in-store retail staff to picking, packing and shipping online orders.

During the peak season especially, the entire fulfilment chain needs to remain healthy. If one component is missing or underperforming due to COVID-19 – the entire chain will be impacted. Building resilience across the entire fulfilment cycle is therefore vital for brands operating during peak. Carriers, for example, are set to face huge pressure to keep up with a near pure online Christmas shopping experience – not just in terms of initial delivery, but also managing a potential influx of returns. Staff shortages, due to illness and self-isolation requirements, is also likely to prove challenging over the coming months. Having back-up resources in place in these instances, and an alternative plan of action will be imperative to overcome such scenarios.

Tearing down the online wall

Just because a screen between the consumer and provider is more commonplace now – even mandatory during this time – the opportunities available through brands’ customer service operations should not be ignored. Contact centre agents can enhance the customer experience by providing tailored recommendations and detailed purchase information. Personalised and sensitive interactions can make all the difference when it comes to lasting customer loyalty.

Delay in responding is a no-no – and in a world when instantaneous communications have become the norm, brands need to be able to address complaints quickly, especially during peak times. Real-time customer support can be just as effective as the in-store experience, sometimes even better if a customer service representative has the appropriate brand knowledge – not just standard scripted dialogue. Additionally, brands should have effective social monitoring in place to track customer mentions across social platforms or onsite reviews and engage any less than glowing reports to try and save the relationship. By doing so, brands can nurture the customer relationship to drive repeat sales and customer loyalty.

For many brands, rising contact volumes during peak periods can prove challenging and often an outsourced operation will prove to be a simpler and more cost-effective option. Having a flexible partner – that can scale up or down depending on activity – provides the agility required to support a responsive, yet cost-effective operation.

Mission possible

Opportunity is the name of the game. Put the appropriate infrastructure and technologies in place now to capitalise on the unprecedented opportunities this peak season offers online retailers and brands. Flexibility in response to peak demands this year is critical. Getting this right now, during this pivotal moment for eCommerce, will instil customer confidence and set online retailers and brands up for long-term customer loyalty.

Whilst we do not know exactly what the next couple of months have in store, we do know that being prepared to navigate increased demand throughout peak will be pivotal for survival.