Online grocery champion Ocado reported a 21.8% increase in full-year pre-tax profits to £14.5 million last week, but faces increased challenges from the likes of Amazon, as well as still not securing elusive international deals for its SmartPlatform e-commerce tech.
While the latter two aspects were picked over by analysts as potential threats moving forward, my own experience of Ocado last week suggests that there are some other problems that merit some attention.
I’ve been a frequent Ocado user in the past and, on the whole, the service has delivered on what it promised. There was one notable exception with a driver who was, not to put too fine a point on it, threatening and hostile and clearly having a very bad day when he told me I should be “on your knees thanking me for delivering”. Silly me, thinking that was his job…
But overall, it’s been a decent experience and nothing’s come to close to Asda’s online deliveries team, who casually called to cancel our Christmas order on 23rd December a few years back due to an error at their end. That was bad enough, but when they then offered to deliver Christmas dinner on 27th December, that was the end of that particular commerce relationship!
All of that changed rather last week. I’d placed a fairly hefty order earlier in the week, with delivery scheduled for 10.30am on Wednesday. I wasn't at home, but my partner stayed in to take delivery, which was due before 11.30am.
Come 12.15, I had a message from home saying that they hadn’t delivered. In the meantime, a meeting that my partner was due to attend had to be cancelled.
Shortly after, I received an email from Ocado customer services saying that :
I am very sorry that we were not able to deliver your order within your timeslot this morning. While circumstances beyond our control can occasionally cause delays, I would like to reassure you that late deliveries are unusual for us and that we are always working on ways to minimise this as much as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that we missed you today, as your driver could not find your address when he arrived to the area at 12:00.
Well they hadn't "missed you"; they hadn't delivered. This begged several questions, not the least of which was why the driver, if lost or running late, had not phoned to alert me to this. I queried this. The customer services person came back and said that the driver had called me.
That’s what we now get to call an "Alternative Fact", so that we don't use the L-word. I had my phone with me all day and had no missed calls. So unless the driver had the wrong number, this just wasn't true.
Not keen on being "Alternative Fact"-ed to, I got customer services to read back the phone number on the order. It was accurate.
This version of events was then updated - the driver had phoned, but it went straight to voicemail. Again, "Alternative Fact", but even if I entertained that idea, why did he then not leave a voicemail message?
Customer services had no answer for that one. Or for why, as she pointed out herself, the driver couldn’t find an address that Ocado delivers to regularly, not just to me, but to neighbours. There's never a day goes by without an Ocado van outside the front door.
The customer services lady said she’d rebook and a timeslot of 5pm-6pm the following evening was agreed. She also offered a voucher as compensation. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best that was going to happen, I decided.
Flash forward a few hours to 5pm on the same day and I get a call from Ocado. They were about to deliver, but were a bit early, was that OK? I said that the delivery wasn’t now due until 5pm the following day as there was no-one at home at present.
Long silence. Then the Ocado person - who I think was a driver - said they’d deliver between 6pm and 10pm that evening instead. Now, apart from the fact that I’m not going to sit in for 4 hours for a delivery that should have been there that morning, the level of presumption here was striking. I said that the driver could not deliver that evening as there was no-one there and we’d expect the delivery as (re)arranged at 5pm the next day.
As soon as I put the phone down, a thought struck me. Had I just inadvertently 'cancelled' the order? As in, given that the latest driver seemed to have no access to the correct information, would she now put into the system that I’d turned away the order?
Paranoid by now, I called customer services and went through the whole tale. Again, the lady there was very good and expressed total bafflement about what the hell was going on. There was nothing in the records she was looking at to explain why the local driver should think they were supposed to be delivering now. She promised me that she'd go into the system and make sure that the re-arranged time slot was still in place.
So, it’s the next day. It’s 4.30pm. I go out to walk the dog, leaving my partner at home to take the delivery in, the one that’s definitely coming, remember?
It. Didn't. Come.
By 6.15pm, there’s no sign of the driver or the groceries. I phone customer services - they’re on speed dial by this time! - only to be told that (a) the driver’s late (b) they’ve no idea why he hasn’t called to flag this up and (c) he’ll be coming “later”.
At which point, I cancelled the whole damn order and placed a replacement one with Amazon - who turned up and delivered the goods on time and as arranged.
Some people say you don’t get to make more than one mistake in the digital economy. Ocado managed three in the space of 24 hours.
For all that the customer services people I spoke to were helpful and concerned, that counted for nothing in the end. The centralised Ocado customer management team is at the mercy of the local delivery and logistics people not to screw up. As ever, it’s the ten yards to the front door where the e-commerce operation breaks down.
What happened here I’ve no idea. Three different drivers were involved though, so it seems unlikely that we’d strike unlucky three times over. All of which suggests to me that something was badly broken somewhere behind the scenes, although I have no idea what that would be.
What I do know, is that that’s it for me with Ocado. It’s a pity, but if a service that is built around convenience and reliability becomes inconvenient and unreliable, then game over for me. It’s a tough world in the online grocery business and only the truly fit will survive. This is not the time for Ocado to start falling short on delivery and execution.