Sunday 26th Mar 2017 - Logistics & Supply Chain

The tangled web…

A couple of mishaps in the past month have got me thinking about whether logistics professionals should give deeper thought to the complexities of selling goods over the internet.

Let’s start with Robert, the director of a mediumsized company so not unacquainted with business processes or websites. He decided to surprise his wife by booking them on a cruise. He logged on to the website of a well-known cruise firm, looked at the holidays on offer and booked online. But he wasn’t sure he had, so he repeated the process. That didn’t seem to work quite as well as he thought. So he tried it one more time.

At which point the phone rang. ‘WonderWorld Cruises here,’ said a voice (not the company’s real name, incidentally). ‘Did you know you’ve just booked three cabins on the same ship for the same dates?’

Let’s move on to Jeannie, who saw the kitchen appliance of her dreams also for sale over the internet. She logged on and filled in the onscreen forms and bought it. Except that, she too wasn’t sure. So she logged on again. ‘View your account and current order status,’ invited the screen. She viewed. No order listed. So, uttering a small curse at the perfidy of computers, she ordered again.

When the first of the appliances arrived, she found she’d ordered twice. But then matters took a more irritating turn. She logged on to the site, hoping to cancel the order for the second appliance – a task the website had promised would be easy as pie.

Not so. The website had been designed to frustrate even the most dedicated surfer. The cancellation process required tracking back and forth across multiple screens to collate information on order and security numbers. Screens were obviously programmed to disappear halfway through the process so information had to be written down manually.

Jeannie has vowed never to buy anything on the internet again. (At least, not this month.) And Robert still breaks out in a cold sweat at the thought of the beating his credit card nearly took for the cruise that cost a king’s ransom even for one cabin.

So what are the lessons here? The first is that there are still plenty of websites that normally intelligent and sophisticated people find baffling. Buying any kind of complex product over the internet is always going to involve some kind of information collection process. The challenge is to make it happen simply and show the customer at each stage what information has been logged. No information leads to doubt – and customers in doubt may not come back again.

The second lesson comes from Robert’s experience. The attraction of selling over the internet is that it’s a low sales cost medium. No expensive salespeople’s salaries to pay. But the cruise company demonstrated two things – often the internet works best when it’s teamed with a telephone hotline.

Human intervention
Not only that, but when systems are designed so that if a customer is getting into a hopeless muddle on the website, it can create an alert which lets a human intervene before the situation gets out of hand.

The third lesson brings us into more familiar supply chain territory. One of the pernicious problems which many web sellers have discovered is the high proportion of returned goods – the same applies to catalogue sales. As every logistics pro knows, reverse supply chain activities are expensive to mount, prone to errors (with consequent complaints) and eat voraciously away at the bottom line. 

It’s important to offer a generous returns policy. The wary consumer simply won’t buy without it. But it’s also tempting to make returns as cussedly awkward as possible. In the short-term, that’s a policy which may win a small round of applause in the boardroom but the applause will die away as fast as the repeat business.

So what to do? Logistics pros need to become a lot cleverer at collecting and using information about their internet order and returns cycle. They need to discover a lot more about why products are returned (such as that a second was ordered accidentally) so that they can start to address and eliminate their causes.

There could also be some thought given to building database information about the purchase and return habits of individual customers.

These are the kinds of issues that bear thinking about and those who tackle them creatively will find they provide a disproportionate boost to their bottom line. Now, about that cruise…

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