When Neiman Marcus filed for bankruptcy in May of this year, the news didn’t come as much of a shock, as traditional retail stores have always had the risk associated with physical disruption even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. For Neiman Marcus, the shelter in place orders hit one of its biggest value draws: the in-person buying experience.
The in-person experience is half of the reason consumers shop at brick-and-mortar locations. Not only is the customer experience much more controlled and intimate, it also gives the buyer a sense of trust that the item they’re purchasing is in fact coming from a credible source, as it’s often difficult to create that same sense of security in the online experience. So when brick-and-mortar locations were forced to close down in March and the in-store experience was no longer a viable option for many retail providers, many were left to rely solely on the online experience in order to stay afloat.
Unfortunately, the online experience often comes with several drawbacks for the consumer, specifically relating to inventory accuracy and real-time updates. Despite some store-reopenings, analysts predict COVID-19 disruptions will continue to impact the industry for months, and even years to come, which will be a make or break for some retailers.
Below are some tips to keep in mind when pivoting your online strategy and preparing for the future of digital retail.
Fulfillment and online customer experience go hand in hand
The real-time inventory craze of the last few years has pushed businesses to minimize inventory and depend on consistent deliveries from suppliers and manufacturers. This works when fulfillment at the customer end is predictable and consistent, allowing the company to use fulfillment as a differentiator. But when supply chains break down at the supplier and manufacturer portions of the supply chain due to closed borders, closed factories, labor shortages, and transportation outages, the impact is felt almost immediately at the customer level.
Buyers are now making purchase decisions based on both pricing AND the fulfillment process (delivery times, and providers). This means organizations need real-time visibility not into what customers are buying but also visibility of on-hand inventory, and related inbound and outbound logistics. Visibility and governance are the only practical ways companies can ensure proper customer expectations can are achieved.
Given recent shortages caused by COVID-19 disruption, buyers are far more comfortable knowing when something arrives rather than how fast it will come. But all too often, customers are not presented with a notification that products are out of stock or delayed, which can have a lasting impact on brand reputation and consumer loyalty. Because of this, retailers need the ability to predict and forecast potential disruptions in real-time and monitor inventory and fulfillment in tandem.
Quality emerges as a key differentiator
COVID-19 has impacted every country, region, and state. As a result, products in high demand and out of stock in one region may have been in stock and available in another. Promises of facemasks from China to be delivered to Washington DC produced a strong demand for overseas fulfillment via e-commerce and marketplace channels. Unfortunately, when the delivery happened, some found the products lacking the quality necessary for adequate protection. Unfortunately, this is just one example of many.
While much is unknown about “the new normal,” it is fast becoming evident that the importance of quality is being considered during the selection and purchasing process. Now more than ever, retailers must place an extreme focus on delivering quality and unique experiences that can help a brand stand out amongst the crowd.
Again, well-orchestrated processes and agile integrations of the applications and systems hosting these processes is a must. Speed of which you can onboard a new supplier can mean the difference between a population of customers with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram offering either praise or complaints. Business transaction tracing along with message correlation, to bring together transactions from API and EDI interactions, can bring immediate context to orders, fulfillment, and invoices dramatically reducing resolution time and cost.
As the US eventually reopens for good, the resiliency of the supply chain will continue to be tested and choices made today will either set companies on a trajectory toward agility or lead to further challenges. Consumer experiences with specific brands during this time will inevitably carry on with them long after the crisis has subsided. During this pandemic, consumer experience around a brand’s quality of product, frequency of shipping updates, and inventory reliability will impact the perception of the brand as “the new normal” takes hold and a “new buyer” emerges.
Just as inefficiencies within the supply chain have been exposed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, companies’ own inefficiencies around quality control, poor communication throughout the shipping and delivery process, and real-time inventory alerts have been experienced first-hand from its loyal consumers.
Frank Kenney is the Director of Market Strategy for the integration platform Cleo.
A former Gartner analyst, Frank is widely credited as the creator of the term managed file transfer (MFT), and was the first to write about and discuss its modern architecture, platform, and use cases.
Previously, Frank served more than 10 years as a research director at Gartner, where he defined the MFT, B2B gateway, SOA governance, and cloud service brokerage (CSB) markets.