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3 Realizations on the E-Commerce Shopping Experience in COVID

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t my first foray into the e-commerce shopping experience. My Amazon account dates back to 2006. Online purchases have been a mainstay through most of my adult life.

That said, I have always been a brick-and-mortar person. I worked as a store manager in NYC for over a decade, and now work in retail tech. But more than that, I’m a discerning shopper. I like to try on clothes and explore products before I buy them. I care about the way something feels. For all of the internet’s conveniences, you can’t capture that on a screen.

So, until now, I made my most important purchases in stores. But ever since New York shut down 13 weeks ago, I’ve become a consummate virtual consumer. While shopping online during COVID, I tasted both victory and defeat. Those experiences will linger when deciding where and how to shop in the future.

Here’s what I learned about what it takes to win (and why so many retailers fall short) in e-commerce, through the lens of a brick-and-mortar die hard.

 

If your click-and-collect is broken, you’ve lost me… forever?

This isn’t a rant about a grocer swapping organic honeycrisps for Twinkies. I can laugh off a silly substitution for an out-of-stock product. 

But I can’t forgive one large, beloved big box retailer that promised same day contactless click-and-collect at the pandemic’s peak. And didn’t deliver.

Here’s how it went:

  1. I downloaded the retailer’s app to place a large grocery order.
  2. The app promised fulfillment in hours. I can spot a pipe dream when I see it, so I expected a longer lag time. 
  3. The next afternoon, a push notification popped up on my phone telling me my order was ready (hooray!).
  4. I hopped in the car, and headed over.
  5. I pulled into the curbside pickup section of the parking lot, and let the store know (via the app) that we were ready. 
  6. 30 minutes went by. It became clear that we weren’t the only car whose order was delayed. 
  7. The woman in the car in front of me got out and complained that she’d been waiting “over an hour.”
  8. Determined to my purchase ASAP and be done, I parked and went inside with a mask, gloves, and hand sani. 
  9. I got in line at customer service and waited 5 minutes before I was up to bat.
  10. I showed the customer service associate my order details. She left to check on it for about 10 minutes.
  11. She came back to apologize that she had no idea where my purchase was or when I’d be able to get it.
  12. I left the store without the items I’d paid for.
  13. I cancelled the order in the app.

 

This isn’t some kind of Greek tragedy. But in a pandemic, when visiting a store presents a risk, this was seriously stressful. Beyond the risk, I’d wasted my time placing and then trying unsuccessfully to redeem my purchase. This big box retailer broke its promises.

In the end, I did the whole thing over again–albeit successfully–with another grocer. Next time, I’ll go to that competitor first. Sure, I might shop at the store again for home goods or electronics. But you won’t find me in the grocery aisle.

 

Even more than in brick-and-mortar, you have to empower your people in e-commerce.

Buying furniture is not something I usually do from my living room. But pandemic found me wrapping up some design projects in my apartment that I would have otherwise done in person. 

I was happy to find a chic, affordable rocking chair for my baby’s nursery. The retailer, who has a large physical footprint, made the ordering process easy, shipped for free, and in a few days the rocker was on my doorstep. 

I began the unfortunate assembly process only to discover that the chair had incurred damage in shipping.  The wood on the left arm was cracked clear through. 

An error in the app made it impossible for me to communicate the issue without a phone call. I called customer service and explained the problem, hoping they would ship me a new one. Before I could even offer to document the damage, the associate told me the chair was now out of stock. Bummer.

Then, she did something amazing. “Here’s what we can do,” she said, “I’ll issue a refund now for the chair. Don’t bother sending us a photo. You can keep it, give it to goodwill, throw it away… whatever you want. I’ll sign you up for notifications when the product is back in stock.”

Now that’s how you empower your frontline. Having fallen in love with it and hellbent on completing the project, I fixed the chair with wood glue and went on my merry way. Over the next few weeks, I ordered patio furniture and a bed from the retailer. I could have bought those items anywhere. But I’m staying loyal to this retailer because I know they’ll have my back if the online shopping experience falls short. Win for them, win for me. 

 

The screen between you isn’t a barrier for bad processes.    

I always thought it was easier to maintain the e-commerce shopping experience than it was to control things in-store. Stores are live environments. A messy fixture here, an unmotivated associate there… Lots of things can happen in brick-and-mortar to destroy a customer’s perception of you. 

But I realized that inefficient operations and bad training aren’t easy to hide in the digital realm, either.

I placed a large order with a beauty juggernaut (think: Ulta/Sephora), with whom I’m a long-time loyalty club member. A few days after my purchase, they announced a big storewide promo. 

Given my spending history, the proximity of my purchase to the promo launch date, and my experience offering my own customers price adjustments back in the day, I figured asking them to honor the sales price would be no big whoop. 

Wrong. 

I won’t get into the thick of it and out myself as the occasional Karen, but I will say that I got the price adjustment (in the form of store credit) after hours calling and then emailing customer service, with multiple escalations and points of contact over the ensuing two weeks. It was a waste of time for me and for their team. 

Was it worth it? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I’ll stay tentatively loyal, given that they eventually met my expectations. But my impression of the retailer as consumer-centric/hyper-efficient is no more. My e-commerce shopping experience revealed the man behind the curtain in a way that my in-store interactions never did.

In the pre-COVID world, a store sales associate would have tipped me off to the impending sale to begin with. Why can’t retailers enact similar policies to encourage their best customers to take advantage of rare promos in e-comm? Why not just give the green light for all customer service reps (including the person who first answers the phone) to make small gestures to keep loyalists loyal? It’s never a good look to squabble over cash with a solid spender.

 

The bigger picture of online vs. brick-and-mortar shopping.

These shopping experiences are some of the more memorable ones from the darkest of covid days. Ultimately,  I learned that online shopping is not all that different from showing up in person, save for immediacy. 

Designing a beautiful store is sort of like rolling out an app with impressive UX. It’s half the battle at best. Whatever a shopper’s touchpoint with your brand, it really all comes down to operations, policies, and people. Because the small moments when things go awry are actually the moments of greatest opportunity for retailers.

CB4 helps brick-and-mortar retailers remove little in-store obstacles that can become their biggest problems. Watch how the solution empowers frontline retail employees, streamlines operations, and drives revenue.m y 

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