What has the pandemic taught us about ecommerce delivery?

  • What has the pandemic taught us about ecommerce delivery?

    The global coronavirus lockdown has highlighted the importance of ecommerce fulfilment like never before. With physical stores closed and self-isolating customers staying away, online delivery has become a lifeline for many - the fifth emergency service.

    What have retailers learnt from the Covid-19 crisis period? First and foremost, it’s apparent that retailers able to rapidly scale their online order fulfilment and delivery capabilities have proved to be better positioned than those that can’t. During lockdown we’ve seen retailers tested like never before, as demand has rocketed in some categories, but dropped off a cliff for others. The net outcome will be £12.6bn in lost sales across UK retail in 2020, according to GlobalData, so salvaging sales through ecommerce could amount to make or break for many companies.

    Technological advances, strategic partnerships and smart customer service enhancements have been born out of this disaster. Retailers will do well to nurture every ecommerce fulfilment success, to help them on the road to recovery.

    Supermarkets under pressure to scale up

    In grocery, unprecedented demand and pressure to literally feed the nation, has led to rapidly-deployed innovations – many of which will remain in play post-pandemic. We’ve seen regional supermarket chain Booths expanding its click and collect to all stores, while Sainsbury’s has used bikes, ‘dark stores’ and its Chop Chop app to reach vulnerable customers in city locations. Market leader Tesco revealed an impressive increase in both home delivery and click-and-collect capacity in March, expanding slots from 660,000 a week to 1 million each week in the short space of a month since the start of the UK lockdown.

    Unfortunately in many cases the sheer volume of demand proved too much. Ocado is renowned for its highly automated fulfilment operation, yet had to suspend its service in March, because it simply did not have the fulfilment capacity. The chief financial officer Duncan Tatton-Brown said in an update to investors that Ocado's biggest bottleneck was trying to process orders through its fulfilment centres. If the company didn’t have capacity limits, Tatton-Brown said, it would be doing five to 10 times its usual sales volume.

    Safety first on the doorstep

    Consumer fears of contamination have also challenged retailers to adapt how they deliver ecommerce orders. This means carefully managing the customer doorstep experience, so that deliveries are handed over in a safe, ‘contactless’ way. For instance, Next has worked with its logistics partner Hermes, to educate customers about the My Hermes App. This allows the customer to use the ‘My Places’ feature for a contact-free delivery.

    Also working hard to reassure the public, the Asda website explains that drivers are fully committed to “keeping equipment clean and using alcohol hand gel between every order”. Delivery drivers have been specially trained to keep a distance of at least 2 metres at all times and leave bags of groceries on the doorstep.

    It’s fair to say that a big learning has been the importance of valuing and protecting employees who have proved so vital in keeping home delivery going during the lockdown. Equipping them with the tools and technology to remain operational and safe has been a challenge well worth rising to, garnering both staff and customer loyalty.

    Customer expectations will remain high

    Post-pandemic it’s likely that huge swathes of the public will have become committed ecommerce fans, when before the crisis they were not. Retailers with ecommerce capability that have helped new and existing customers get hold of their favourite skincare products, household staples, toys, games and garden equipment are likely to have won long-term favour, particularly if their service was considered good. There were already high expectations around home delivery and the ecommerce customer experience, and these won’t have lost relevance after the crisis. In fact they’ll be important to a wider demographic.

    RetailEXPO exclusive 2020 Vision report set out exactly what shoppers thought of the delivery experience at the start of the year. Far and away the biggest fulfilment pain-point was cost, with 47% of shoppers in the survey annoyed that delivery is not free. Nearly a quarter (24%) said they would like to see more delivery options available and 21% said that products are not delivered in an environmentally friendly way, for example with excessive packaging that may not be recyclable.

    Learn to keep evolving

    Savvy retailers will take these insights about what makes the perfect delivery during ‘Business as Usual’ trading, and combine them with valuable learnings from the coronavirus lockdown period, which seems to be amplifying customer expectations.

    Using technology, big data, and engaged workforces alongside the myriad of new ideas sparked by the crisis, there’s every chance of retailers securing a future, when the dust finally settles.