Bang! The E-Fulfillment Race Is on

The 1998 holiday shopping season changed everything. Overnight, the scope, weight and impact of consumer e-commerce was validated and celebrated. Depending on the source, between $2 billion and $13 billion dollars of merchandise changed hands as one in eight U.S. households shopped online.

That’s the good news. Now the scramble to build out the infrastructure to facilitate, keep up with and exploit e-commerce has begun. Whoever gets the back end right first wins!

And if the back end determines success, we can’t afford to sit on ours as consumers expand their shopping experiences and expectations.

We begin with a few simple assumptions. Consumers have read the hype, separated out the reality and begun to seriously experiment with shopping online. They expect us to get it right, whether it’s their first moment online or the 10th visit to our site. They have no tolerance for technical glitches and expect easy transactions, speed, convenience and a deal.

“Click here to buy” as well as secure credit card transactions with clearly marked pathways to change your order or change your mind are givens. Speed in downloading pages or processing orders is a must because it saves shoppers time and gives them instant gratification. According to Keynote Systems, the average page was downloaded in 9.2 seconds with 97 percent reliability during the holiday rush. That’s twice as long as I’ll wait.

Convenience to duck the crowds at the mall or shop in your skivvies at midnight can give online retailers an edge. Forty percent of the sales on America Online were between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., when most retail stores are closed. And though hardly anyone can pronounce the word “disintermediation,” customers online know there are fewer middlemen and expect either exclusive merchandise offerings, discounted pricing or both.

Instinctively, they expect sites to be intuitive. Merchandise should be grouped logically and displayed with complete details. Navigation should be simple and logical. Customers expect to be able to buy with a click, an 800 call or an e-mail, and they want help, information and advice in real time, usually from real people. Customers want online shopping to be easier than the shopping they grew up doing.

It is our job to make it easier and more fun by figuring out how to array technology, retail merchandising and marketing strategy to super-serve the needs of a growing class of online shoppers.

The answers lie in mastering the 4 I’s – systems to identify customers; to invite them to e-commerce sites; to provide incentive to purchase; and to interact with them in ways that build repeat business, referrals and brand loyalty.

Steve Allen at Los Angeles-based call center MCRB Service Bureau Inc. is experimenting with a Web-enhanced fulfillment system he calls “SmartMail,” designed to improve incentives for purchase and to turn the traditional fulfillment process on its head.

“SmartMail” is a hybrid system that combines e-mail with snail mail to deliver letters and brochures to the tech-savvy on the Web and subsequently by traditional means to the not-so-savvy. In the short term, the combination strategy promises to streamline the fulfillment process, guaranteeing delivery and some degree of awareness, to revolutionize speed parameters and dramatically reduce costs. By 2005, the company’s fulfillment will be done in cyberspace.

Sound too good to be true? Not really. E-mail, either as plain text, rich e-mail or e-mail enhanced with hyperlinks, is available to roughly 40 percent of computers in the United States today. (Projections run as high as 75 percent over the next two years.) Allen’s plan rests on the growth and acceptance of e-mail. He figures you e-mail everyone you can on the fulfillment list with a letter that includes a hyperlink to brochure-like material. Your prospects can access a well-designed, colorful, even dynamic piece of communications, then read it, bookmark it or print it whenever they want or as often as they want. Customers get materials in five to eight hours electronically vs. 48 to 72 hours by the U.S. Postal Service.

In less than eight hours, your fulfillment is delivered. You get a bounce-back of any bad e-mail addresses. By embedding the hyperlink, you can track exactly who “got” your piece, so you know who to follow up with and close. This incremental marketing agility means you could leverage time, region or other demographics to your advantage.

Any e-mail address that bounces gets snail mail. So does anyone who didn’t click through to the “brochure” site. Compared to traditional fulfillment, “SmartMail” offers individualized, trackable communications within hours of a customer’s initial expression of interest: an opportunity to maximize interaction and sell-through.

At this stage of evolution, the system enhances the traditional collect-batch-mail fulfillment model. As e-fulfillment develops, the math pays out by eliminating printing, postage, lettershop and inventory management costs. And by streamlining the time and the process of providing incentives and interactivity with customers, it yields a faster, cheaper and smarter way to get marketing messages in to the hands of customers and prospects.

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