Deliver the Goods and a Good Experience

One of the first dot-bomb symptoms manifested itself during the 1999 holiday season. Remember? That was the year online retailers, braced for their first significant season, didn’t deliver. Literally.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined dozens of merchants for failing to make promised holiday deliveries. Macys.com had to fund an online consumer rights education program. Early the following year, overcoming “the last mile” became a burgeoning little industry. A clutch of companies (three of which are either out of the logistics business or defunct) — zBox, Brivo, HomeCourier, PaxZone, and MentalPhysics — peddled reception, home delivery, and in-store boxes (think extremely large mailbox) in which couriers could securely leave packages if recipients happened not to be home when their doorbells rang.

It didn’t catch on.

Why would this matter to online marketers? Seventy percent of consumers equate retailer performance with delivery satisfaction, according to FedEx. Thanks to a boom in online sales, home delivery is in triple-digit growth mode. Yet there’s no longer much talk about the last mile, that messy, non-CPU contained final stage when virtual transactions turn into physical packages… or into “Attempted Delivery” notices flapping on the door.

What can online retailers do to narrow the last-mile gap?

Understand Customers Hate Shipping Fees

Half of purchases over Thanksgiving weekend 2002 were influenced by free shipping deals, compared to 38 percent the prior year, said BizRate. In the company’s network of consumer retail sites, 138 featured free shipping this year, a 20 percent rise over last year. Free shipping was this season’s single most common promotion because it’s extraordinarily popular with shoppers. Most (53 percent) are willing to wait significantly longer for delivery if they don’t have to pay for it, according to a survey by Jupiter Research (a unit of ClickZ’s parent corporation). Free shipping, according to the report, is a “necessary evil” for online retailers. Merchants who are up front about the terms of free shipping offers can avail themselves of more inexpensive shipping methods. If longer waits don’t exactly close the last mile, a clear policy will manage expectations
— often half the battle.

In-Store Pickup

An impressive 18 percent of shoppers prefer to pick up purchases at a local store, according to the same Jupiter study. Online merchants with a physical presence (or strategic local partners) can eliminate delivery fees and redelivery attempts and even enable same-day fulfillment. As a bonus, a little upsell may occur once shoppers get in the store. Sears and other retailers offering in-store pickup have orders ready before customers arrive.

Know and Communicate the Options

Even the tiniest mom-and-pop e-tailer knows a dedicated page explaining holiday delivery (prominently linked) is a must. This should supplement any site’s standard delivery info page. Too few sites go into any detail explaining the various options offered by the services they entrust with customer orders.

FedEx Ground’s Home Delivery Service, for example, was developed solely to serve residential customers. It’s the corporation’s fastest-growing product.

It was news to me when I spoke with FedEx Ground Executive VP Rodger Marticke. The premium service was “developed to maximize the probability packages are delivered on the first attempt,” he explained. “It’s geared toward any company needing to get product into the hands of a consumer.”

Available nationally, FedEx will deliver to homes until 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays at additional cost. “We will tailor our delivery schedule to the schedule of the recipient,” he said. “If you want your package delivered on Wednesday, we can effect that. Wednesday at 3 pm? We can effect that within a one-hour window.” Marticke calls it “good customer experience.” It would be even better if e-tailers shipping via FedEx made such options known and available to customers lacking doormen — or reindeer parking.

FedEx’s level of service sets the bar, but UPS introduced the “InfoNotice” last year to address the last-mile issue for residential customers. If a recipient isn’t in, the courier leaves the notice and a number. Using it, the recipient can request (online or by phone) any of several options: delivery to a different address, holding of the package for up to five business days, or delivery of the package to a neighbor or UPS pick-up location. A location-finder is on the UPS Web site.

These are all good ideas that would work even better with some educational trickle-down. FedEx and UPS should encourage and educate retailers to include these options on their sites, or at least to link to explanations of the services.

Go Local

Services such as Ensenda offer same-day delivery through local networks of independent messenger services. Orders are routed to the company server, then to couriers in the market, prioritized by their performance record. The company has relationships with couriers representing over 9,500 delivery people in 100 U.S. markets.

Get a Calendar

Christmas isn’t the only holiday of the holiday season. I was reminded of this late in November, when a ClickZ colleague mentioned she was off to shop at a department store. I expressed surprised she wasn’t doing her holiday shopping online. She shrugged and replied that this year’s Amazon delivery schedule didn’t jibe with Hanukkah’s early arrival.

Options Up Front

Even with free shipping, many want to know shipping method in advance of making a delivery choice. For many, knowing if a package will be sent USPS, UPS, or FedEx will determine the amount they’re willing to spend and even the delivery address (e.g., home or office).

Plain Brown Wrapper

My laptop was shipped in an Apple iBook box. Attractive package — and likely the reason the box arrived empty.

Underpromise, Overdeliver

It’s not only fulfillment, it’s customer satisfaction and your brand’s last chance to make a great impression over the course of a transaction. Delight them.

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