Unfulfilling e-commerce - lessons to be tabled from a bad experience with Wayfair

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan January 11, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Buying a new kitchen table and chairs online before Christmas highlighted the criticality of fulfilment in the e-commerce retail experience.

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In my recent 2021 review of all things omni-channel retail, I noted:

Tying back to the supply chain crisis, 2021 saw a continuation of the realization among retailers of the importance of the last mile. How to get goods into the hands of consumers is now a competitive differentiator that’s only going to get more important in 2022.

If I’d waited a few more days to write that review prior to Christmas, my own lived experience of how bad an e-commerce transaction can be if the fulfillment aspect falls to pieces might have engendered some rather more colourful terminology!

The trigger for my increased stress levels was the search for a new kitchen table in mid-November. A viable candidate was spotted on Habitat’s website, but was apparently not available for delivery in my local area. (On visiting my local branch, I was told that this is Habitat-speak for ‘we don’t have any anywhere, but we don’t want to put people off completely’. Mind you, I was also told that they would phone me as soon as another item was back in stock. It came back into stock a few days later, but phone call came there none. But that’s by the by…)

So an alternative had to be found and my attention shifted to online-only retailer Wayfair. This is a company that diginomica has taken a deep dive in on a few times and generally been impressed by its story. It can boast a relatively disruptive business model. As co-founder NIraj Shah noted this time last year:

In the early days, people would debate whether home goods would be bought online. Then it became clear that home goods were being bought online, but the debate became how big a piece of the market could move online?

He also said:

E-commerce is a very tough business and the reason why it's tough is that it's like an athletic competition that really rewards the fully well-balanced athlete versus someone who maybe has really strong arms or particularly strong legs. What I mean is that perhaps you're great at merchandising, but you're not great at logistics…What happens is, whatever you're not great at is actually what limits your growth, because that's the thing that eventually slows you down and being great at other areas doesn't make up for it.

That last would come back to mind in pretty short order.

Dire dispatch 

Having checked out the Wayfair site - which remains an impressive catalog of inventory - a suitable table was found and ordered, along with a separate order for four chairs, those to come as two orders of two.

Let’s start with the good news. The chairs arrived within a week or so and were of a high quality. The delivery went smoothly enough - they arrived on the day they were supposed to according to the Wayfair online tracking system. So far, so good. The table had a longer lead time, but was due to arrive on the 15th December.

The 15th came.

And the 15th went.

No table.

A check of the tracking history on the Wayfair site showed that it was still scheduled to arrive on the 15th and that it had been dispatched from the warehouse into the care of courier firm DHL.  Oh well, I thought, it’ll turn up tomorrow. But it didn’t. And the tracking system still insisted that it was due for delivery on the 15th.

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I tapped into customer service options on the site, the first line of defence being a chat bot that completely failed to address my needs in terms of getting a resolution. Cutting a long-ish story short-ish, I managed to get into an online conversation with a human being, where things took a strange turn. The person on the other end of the computer screen confirmed to me that the table had indeed left the warehouse (according to the same tracking system that I was able to access), but that no-one knew where it was now.

How, I asked, is that possible? Your system says it was in stock, the order has gone through, the money has been taken from my account and it’s supposedly with a courier. Is it a case that it wasn’t really in stock after all? Oh no, I was assured, it has been shipped from the warehouse...we’re just not sure to where. Someone would investigate and come back to me within 48 hours.

They did, but when they came back to me, they still had no idea of what had happened or where my table was. They would have to come back to me by 7pm the following Monday with what they called ‘a resolution’. By now with goalposts being shifted, I was pretty confident that any such resolution wasn’t likely to result in having a table in my kitchen on Christmas Day, so it was back the drawing board.

In a neat twist, another visit to Habitat’s website sourced a different table to my original choice with the promise of same-day delivery. That was purchased and I set about cancelling the Wayfair order. That, I was told, wasn’t actually going be that simple. Because I had been promised a resolution by the end of the following Monday, nothing could be done until then.

By this point, this entire customer experience had descended into a massive pain point. I went back into the tracking system. It was still promising delivery of the table on the 15th. It also noted that two of my dining chairs had been delivered, but that the other two were ‘out for delivery’ and might be expected two weeks earlier on the 2nd. In fact, all four were sitting waiting in my kitchen for a table to go round!

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Clearly Wayfair had a significant problem with its fulfilment tracking systems, both internal and external. This is a situation that many retailers have struggled with during the pandemic as systems that once would not have been accessible to the consumer have been exposed to scrutiny in pursuit of self-service. Then came the icing on the cake as the Wayfair virtual assistant sent me an update and told me that my table, due on the 15th December, was now expected to ship on the 7th December, a Christmas miracle of time travel!

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For the sake of my blood pressure, things did eventually take a slight turn for the better. I did manage to make contact with a helpful customer service person who managed to set in place a cancellation and an immediate refund without my having to wait for the Monday 7pm deadline before taking any action. She did alarm me slightly by saying that if the table did now turn up despite the order being cancelled, I should refuse delivery and send it back to base. But then again, no-one knew where it was anyway, so that seemed unlikely.

My take

The Habitat alternative table did arrive and Christmas dinner was saved!  So what learnings come from this experience?

Firstly, fulfillment, fulfillment, fulfillment! There is no point in having a ‘bells and whistles’ website and talking up your disruptive business model if you can’t actually get the goods to the customer’s front door. That’s true across all retail sectors and while the COVID-boom in some areas of the e-commerce market is levelling off, the online genie is out of the bottle and not going back in. Any retailer that can’t guarantee efficient fulfilment - and I’m factoring out the current supply chain crisis here - does not have a long term future. Even those who are good at this can be tripped up. Yesterday I was expecting an Amazon delivery. I got a message from the firm saying my order had been delivered. Hurrah! Ten seconds later I got a second message saying that the order had been unable to be delivered. Boo! When I got home, the package had actually been delivered, so it was presumably a case of human error sending out two contradictory messages in this instance. But it goes to show how easy it is to screw up.

Secondly, retailers must invest in top notch back end systems that are joined up in a cohesive whole. Too many organizations have had disparate silos of systems that, pre-COVID, operators internally found ways to ‘glue’ together and create workarounds. Those systems are now often wide open to external users who have neither the experience nor the inclination to try to join the dots. There’s no comfort to be had from the fact that Wayfair customer service and I were looking at the same tracking system when that system was unable to tell either of us where the table was. A real-time view of reality is needed. I’ve literally just been back on the Wayfair site today, looked up my order and, guess what, my table has been dispatched and is due to be delivered on 15th December! Nothing has been updated to reflect the cancelled order. I may yet find myself with an unwanted extra table! 

Thirdly, chat bots may be the first line of defence for customer service, but it needs to be easier to get to a human being who can take on board the complexities of problems that a virtual assistant isn’t geared up to do. These sort of solutions are becoming more sophisticated through the use of AI tech, but there’s no substitute for a human being actually taking an interest and thinking outside of the bot!  A nice touch from the Wayfair person who finally sorted out my refund was to apologize and offer a hefty discount on any future purchase, an offer that is, apparently, open-ended. I’m afraid I can’t say I’ll be in any hurry to take the firm up on that offer, but it’s a gesture that was well-intended.

Final word from Wayfair co-founder Shah from last January:

What happens is, when you have great service and you take care of the customers, that obviously is a big deal. If it becomes a customer's problem and the experience is full of hassle, well, a customer might tolerate it if they have no choice, but at the end of the day, if they can get a great experience somewhere they know, they're going to go back to that place.