Why Exceeding Fulfillment Expectations is the New Holiday Ecommerce Strategy

With each passing year, more ecommerce retailers urge their holiday shoppers to trust that they’ll be on time delivering each gift off their list. When customer care goes the extra mile, and CSR channels are well-prepared for holiday traffic, fulfillment presents retailers with another chance to shine in the eyes of seasonal shoppers.

In light of last year’s infamous fulfillment struggles from shipping giants like UPS, ecommerce retailers will need to exceed consumers’ expectations by streamlining fulfillment and offering steadfast commitment to delivery guarantees in order to remain competitive in holiday 2014.

Last year, StellaService placed orders with 25 of the largest ecommerce retailers on their last day for promised delivery by December 25 and learned that 12% of these orders arrived after their estimated delivery date. These poor results left gift-givers empty-handed, and customer care centers flooded with complaints. In the year since, the trend toward omnichannel strategy has completely changed the fulfillment playing field, setting a new bar for shoppers’ fulfillment expectations. According to our findings and in light of the shift toward omnichannel, holiday 2014 marks the need for retailers to rethink their fulfillment strategy to meet the higher standards of their seasonal online shoppers.

Missed and miscommunicated Christmas cutoff dates pained both shoppers and retailers during holiday 2013. In our recent survey of holiday consumers, StellaService found that only 11% of consumers will shop with a retailer again if their holiday shipping guarantee isn’t met. With Christmas cutoff promises proving to be so meaningful for shoppers, retailers will need to take their commitments to heart this time around.

While 2013 results were impacted by outside factors–such as weather challenges faced by the carriers–these shortcomings ultimately reflect back on the retailer. Retailers can regain that crucial trust if they pick a holiday cutoff date, adhere to it strictly and communicate it clearly to their shoppers.

Delivery guarantees and Christmas cutoff dates will do little to help retailers who can’t ship and deliver holiday packages with efficiency.

Over the past year, major retailers have proven that “omnichannel” is more than a buzzword. Their timing was spot on, as StellaService found that nearly 50% of holiday ecommerce shoppers are likely to take advantage of buy online and pick-up in-store options this holiday season.

Industry leader Best Buy proves a successful case study of omnichannel execution. The company began using an omnichannel strategy in June 2013 to cut delivery speeds, allowing them to outpace ecommerce competitor Amazon come holiday season. StellaService Analysts found that Best Buy’s total days to delivery dipped to 4 days, compared to Amazon’s 4.8 days. after implementing ship-from-store. Beyond this, Best Buy’s deliveries were faster throughout the entire fourth quarter as the retailer refined its omnichannel practice in over 1,000 US stores.

As Amazon continues to build warehouses and speed deliveries, fellow ecommerce competitors are wise to leverage their existing brick and mortar infrastructure with ship-from-store initiatives of their own.

Finally, retailers looking to meet and exceed customers’ expectations this holiday will find that investing in returns is investing in long-term customer loyalty.

While often overlooked, the holiday returns experience is another important element to the customer relationship. The majority of shoppers expect a refund back in 7 days or less during the holiday season, yet the average refund time of the top 25 retailers is 11.4 days. In a rarely-seen strategy, Apple is expediting return shipments, and thereby reducing the risk of issuing a refund before receiving a returned item. The stark contrast between consumer’s expectations and retail reality means that the returns process, the underdog of fulfillment strategy, can be the detail that differentiates holiday customer service.

The holiday season gives retailers the opportunity to gain their customers’ trust. After all, just 11% of holiday shoppers will rely upon a retailer with their purchase again after their delivery cutoff date is missed. Make delivery promises you can keep and explore strategies that bolster customer convenience – such as omnichannel shipping and expedited refunds. Ecommerce retailers that take fulfillment above and beyond and master customer care will win out in holiday 2014.

Kevon Hills is StellaService’s VP of Research.