Recovery Rx for a Holiday Hangover
While the e-commerce industry is not without its share of challenges, we still should see record online sales this year. That means there is also a record cleanup effort in store that will deal with all of the standard issues that come every January. Preventive steps can be taken to ensure a smooth cleanup within these potential problem areas. Here are some things to think about:
Returns are the perennial issue for any retailer, and they are of special importance to e-tailers. BizRate.com, Los Angeles, estimates that e-tailers can expect 10 percent to 12 percent of total online holiday purchases to be returned -- more than twice the figure of any other time of year. Apparel sellers can expect an even higher return rate. Returns are just part of the business. What can you do about it?
In a recent BizRate survey, about one-third of consumers expressed that their primary concern about online holiday shopping was the difficulty surrounding the return of items. If a customer has purchased from you, you are doing something right. Now is the time to ensure that you keep customers by not giving them second thoughts about having purchased from you in the first place.
• Make your policies clear. How long do customers have to return a product, and can they get a refund, credit and/or exchange? Publish these on your site. Measure yourself against some industry standard-bearers -- L.L. Bean and Nordstrom customers can return a product at any time for the life of the product and with no questions asked.
• Decide on exchanges, credits, refunds or a combination. Which method is the most friendly and best for your business? It depends on what you sell and what your competition is offering.
• Customer care is of utmost importance. Holding the hand of the customer through the returns process is critical. It is always better to make it easier for customers because you will gain the long-term benefit of healthy customer relationships.
Remember that returned items do not mean lost customers. They may come back and/or share their return experiences with others. Therefore, it is very important to maintain a responsive, caring posture throughout the returns process, which is by definition a disappointing experience for consumers from the start.
The "how" of returns. Make sure that you send out a return label with the original shipment. If you maintain offline (i.e. bricks-and-mortar) operations, it is best to make returns possible through your stores -- Nordstrom is a leader in this process.
Also, delivery providers are beginning to offer merchants help with the returns process. For example, United Parcel Service recently launched "UPS returns on the Web," which allows customers of participating merchants to print return labels directly from their PCs instead of waiting to receive a return label from an e-tailer or wasting time filling out forms at a shipping location.
Orders that never arrived.
Gifts not arriving lead to a mess that you wouldn't wish on any consumer or company. When it happens, accept responsibility, even if it is someone else's (e.g. the delivery company's) fault. Give customers a gift certificate and win them over. Customers who had a bad experience with a company that is followed up with exceptional service are more loyal to businesses than those who never had a problem.
Dealing with your customer communications backlog.
Many companies get so caught up in accepting orders and putting out fires during the Christmas crunch that many customers do not receive answers to their other inquiries. Every company should respond to every customer, ideally within hours, but every customer still should get a response even if it is days later. There are many jewels in the form of potential sales and lifetime customer relationships hidden in that e-mail database.
Resizing your business.
Did you hire significant numbers of temporary workers, or did you grow your full-time staff in anticipation of huge numbers? If you did well over the holidays, it is great. But it will not last forever. Now is the time to right-size your staff and keep your operations running at a profitable level.
Planning for next year.
Next Christmas may be the furthest thing from your mind heading into the new year. But memories are freshest now for strategic planning. Write down where your people, processes and systems did well or where they did not stack up. Solicit feedback from your management, your team and your customers about what you could have done better. File it away to begin getting ready for next year after a few months' rest.
The holiday shopping season has come and gone, and if you are still standing -- congratulations!
Whether you had a blowout or lackluster season, you undoubtedly have cleanup to complete for moving forward. Though it is not as fun as the party, the cleanup does not have to be a terrible experience. If done properly, it can help you retain your customer relationships, build your reputation as a customer-friendly company and offer an education in how to plan for next year.
• Thatcher Wine is CEO of Cleartop, Santa Monica, CA. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.