Science fiction writer William Gibson is often quoted as saying: "The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed." Right now, that's exactly how the retail experience feels.
I am currently in the middle of a situation that requires a considerable amount of shopping for homewares. If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the current four main modes of shopping go something like this:
- visit store, buy or order.
- research online, visit store to check goods, buy or order.
- research online, visit store to check goods, search for best deals online and order.
- research and order online.
I am testing all four methods simultaneously in something of a thought experiment that allows me to see how each retailer performs. This is not something people will likely do in a day to day basis but it provides interesting insights into the UK retail landscape.
In the UK, a number of leading brands like Debenhams, Tesco, BHS and Marks and Spencer offer a 'click to collect' service where you select a bunch of stuff and then collect at a nominated store. All offer some kind of delivery service for which you pay, depending upon the required delivery timelines. These services may sound convenient but there are large variations in the experience of online ordering.
In most cases, there is an assumption that people will prefer to collect. This is not wholly unreasonable in an age of out-of-town malls but it is far from ideal for the person (like me) who cannot collect a diverse selection of goods.
Variations on a theme
Tesco is attempting to turn itself into a one stop shopping experience for many classes of good. This may sound highly convenient but in a number of cases, Tesco is acting as a broker rather than provider. That means when you come to reviewing orders, they can end up a mish mash of products that Tesco either supplies or not. If you need delivery then that will almost certainly mean incurring multiple delivery charges.
In other cases, I frequently found that while a retailer may offer a product or highlighted a specific offer, these are not available in stock or are subject to lead times that are inconvenient. That can be incredibly frustrating and destroys the experience very quickly. Chief offender here is Argos with which I've had my share of run ins in the past.
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Others like Sonic Direct are just as bad. However, the advantage with Sonic Direct is that you can see the goods you are ordering and make a decision about alternatives. As a side note, they will offer deals when buying three or more items. This can be very handy when you consider that delivery charges can rack up very quickly.
There are other confusing problems. With Debenhams for instance, I wanted to see an item then arrange for delivery. In store, this has to be dealt with separately from till purchases. Unfortunately, the service staff could not find the item in the online catalog, even though it was available in store for collection. I was later able to confirm the item as available online for delivery.
The bigger gripe comes in the shape of delivery charges. As mentioned above, it is possible to do deals but in some cases, you have to suck up those charges. My sense is that price competition has left some margins so thin that the only way for a retailer to make a sensible turn is to charge a hefty add on for delivery in much the same way that airlines low ball on base fares.
Choice? What choice?
But my biggest gripe comes in the shape of choice, or rather the lack of choice. The housewares section of the regional stores I recently visited have visibly shrunk from the days I remember some 20 years ago. It is almost impossible to find decent crockery and as for kitchen utensils? Forget it if you want something other than celebrity chef branded crap. I could not find a single specialist cookware shop anywhere within 30 miles radius of the town I am visiting. Not one. It seems the last went out of business earlier in the year, squeezed no doubt by the dumbing down effect of price squeezing by the major brands and/or IKEA.
I was left wondering whether the average UK household either buys almost solely from IKEA or eats off paper plates. For my purposes, I was left having to search extensively online. Thankfully, some companies, like Nisbets, which is a catering equipment supplier, have stepped into the gap and now supply the public alongside the trade. They offer same day and next day delivery options which consumers will find way better than most retailers. My sense is that their trade experience, where delivery is everything allows them to create a great offer for public consumption.
Online - any better?
The online buying experience is generally tortuous. Some vendors use the 'Verified by Visa' system. This is a mess that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Others simply use the classic name/address/credit-debit card number/CCC confirmation. I'd much prefer that systems like PayPal or Google Wallet become the norm. These services are far easier to navigate than any other.
Surprisingly, Amazon turned out to be less than pristine than expected in order taking . A slew of items constitute a variety of orders. So far so good. But if any order is rejected or held - for example due to card problems - then you have to re-enter or amend the card details for each order item. Bad process.
- Analysts frequently talk about 'customers buying experiences' with the main trends being mobile, social and online. Nothing could be further from reality. Forget mobile, I could barely get any of the major brand sites to work well for me on a smartphone. Social? Puhleeeease...The brands are generally clueless on this topic, considering a Facebook Fan Page as about the outer extremity of where they are prepared to go. Even then these seem to be little more than an insipid extension of their own websites.
- By far and away the best experience is in store, in person. Almost all store staff I encountered were incredibly helpful, able to suggest sensible alternatives and arrange delivery dates that I could work around. That is simply not possible when directly ordering online although some companies do offer tracking systems. None of the major brands offered mobile notifications although Marks and Spencer delivery teams will call to let you know an estimated time of arrival.
- My sense is that rather than banging the buzzword drum, analysts would do far better by understanding the whole customer experience and then go back to the basics of service before encouraging brands to invest in technology for which they are ill equipped. If you can't get the order/payment/delivery process smoothed out then nothing else counts. That's basic commerce.