Delays on Order Fulfillment or Poor Customer Service Will Doom Business in 2021

An interesting survey came out last week that shines a harsh light on companies that may think 2021 will be the beginning of a “return to normal” in the post-pandemic world. The results of these surveys show an urgent need for customers to accelerate their plans for robotics, automation, and digital delivery of goods and services.

The first survey, sponsored by Voxware, showed 73% of consumers saying that retailers that met or exceeded their expectations will get more business from them in the future. Even more telling – 53% of respondents said they will never place another order with certain retailers that mishandled their order fulfillment.

angry hulk pixabay
Customers. You wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.

With COVID-19 laying waste to established supply chains and disrupting businesses left and right, the holiday shopping season would be seen as a bellwether on how much of the fulfillment process was repaired, improved, or stabilized. Sadly, many retailers and businesses fell short of their goals. In the survey, 56% of respondents reported that the gifts they purchased online arrived later than the date that was promised at the time of purchase. Of those who reported getting gifts later than promised, the problem was not isolated to a single order. Half of those who received gifts late said more than 25% of their gifts were delayed.

Failure to communicate

A lack of communication between retailers and customers was also cited as being poor during the holiday season.

  • 42% said retailers did not provide enough information about delayed items.
  • 41% said customer service was unavailable or unable to address questions or concerns.
  • 37% said packages delivered did not include information for making a return.
  • 45% said information for tracking packages was unclear or not provided.

“Heading into the holiday shopping season, we knew it was vital that distribution centers perform to meet both demand and rising consumer expectations,” said Keith Phillips, president, and CEO of Voxware. “These numbers indicate a mixed performance from retailers and should serve as a wake-up call to the industry to advance their distribution systems to ensure a flawless customer experience. We now know that 53% of consumers will not purchase from an online retailer who failed to meet their expectations this holiday season. With e-commerce continuing to grow, brands cannot afford many mistakes, or the consumer will take their business elsewhere.

Customers willing to leave

Poor fulfillment adds to the frustration for many customers, who are growing more and more impatient these days. A Forbes 2020 survey on “Achieving Customer Amazement” showed 96.2% of customers willing to leave because of bad customer service. While many customers were willing to give businesses some benefit of the doubt in the early days of the pandemic, that’s all gone now. 

“A term being used lately is the ‘Now Customer,’ who expects to get what they want almost immediately,” writes Shep Hyken in this Forbes article. “This goes beyond a lack of patience with having to wait on hold or stand in long lines. When customers can order online and get rapid delivery (sometimes two hours or less), they are training their brains to enjoy the experience and hope they get it from every business. They don’t want to wait for the merchandise to be delivered, wait on hold, wait in line at a restaurant … you get the idea. The customer wants it now!”

With impatient customers angry at bad service and late delays, it’s absolutely imperative for companies and retailers to accelerate any robotics and automation projects, or be left in the dust by competitors who can quickly get goods from point A to point B.

Robotics have proven their value for many companies handling online order fulfillment. Locus Robotics, for example, announced that its robots averaged more than 1.2 million units picked per day during the 2020 Cyber Week (which includes Black Friday, Cyber Monday, etc.). A total of 70 million units were picked on behalf of its global retail and third-party logistics customers, a 250% increase over 2019 picks, the company added.

With most experts saying that the pandemic will continue through the first part of 2021, there seems little to indicate that customer demand for products, and demands on fast delivery will wane. On the bright side, robotics and automation can help mitigate –  if not eliminate – customers struggling with supply chain and fulfillment issues.

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Robots Won’t Save Shoppers This Holiday Season…

empty shelves still exist in many places; this will affect holiday shopping as well. Photo by Keith Shaw.
Empty shelves are still being seen in stores, before the expected rush of holiday shopping. Photo by Keith Shaw.

Quick quiz question time: When is the start of the 2020 Online Holiday Season?

A: Black Friday

B: Cyber Monday

C: November 1st

D: Right now may already be too late.

If you answered anything other than D, enjoy explaining to your friends and family why they’re gift didn’t arrive on time. Of course, you could always try to postpone Christmas to February 2021 or have an “Imaginary Christmas” like the Flanderses:

Rod and Todd Flanders celebrate imaginary Christmas. Many consumers in 2020 might have to celebrate if they don't complete online ordering earlier this year.
Source: Frinkiac.com

The best time to start your online holiday shopping is now – and do it before everyone else realizes that ongoing supply chain and logistics fulfillment issues will even get worse the closer we get to December.

Last year, I wrote for Robotics Business Review that the use of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) was at a tipping point for the holiday season. For the most part, robots helped in filling a record number of online orders during the holiday season. Continued data reports and predictions from analyst firms confirm that within the logistics space, AMR usage will continue to skyrocket.

Interact Analysis last week predicted that revenues in the mobile robot space will reach $2.4 billion this year and surge an additional 50% in 2021, despite the chaos being felt around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The prediction falls in line with the idea that the pandemic will lead to greater demand for mobile automation due to staffing shortages, combined with increased online ordering demand.

But these increases in the use of mobile automation won’t happen overnight, and adoption of robotics within the logistics area did not provide a cure to the shortages and delays experienced over the past six months. I still see empty shelves in grocery stores, and my e-commerce experiences haven’t fared any better.

The summer period is often considered “off peak”, where stores should be stocking up and preparing for the holiday shopping frenzy that starts in November, but that’s not the case in 2020. Within the past three months I’ve experienced the following with online orders:

  • A two-month delay in the fulfillment of a T-shirt order from a website that usually completes and ships orders within days.
  • Ordering gifts 4-6 weeks ahead of a family member’s birthday or holiday to then sweating it out to see whether the delivery would make it on time (often with the package showing up one day beforehand).
  • Going onto Amazon Prime and seeing a one-week minimum delay for some items – sure, Amazon will ship the order in one or two days to fulfill the Prime membership, but they won’t fill the order for 4-5 days.

These are not exotic items that I’ve ordered, but rather items that in previous years would have been filled within hours and delivered within one to two days, thanks in part to automated systems and robotics.

It’s going to get worse

The National Retail Federation said online and other non-store sales were up 14.6% in 2019, with overall 2019 holiday sales rising 4.1% compared to 2018. In a recent survey of retailers about their thoughts on 2020, 74% agreed that “given the state of COVID-19, consumers will likely spread their holiday shopping out over several months.” Almost half expected consumers to start shopping in October, and 52% expect to advertise sales next month as well. If you are one of those people who get annoyed about seeing holiday merchandise before Thanksgiving, you’re going to see it out before Halloween this year.

The NRF hasn’t yet offered predictions on the 2020 season in terms of online shopping, but it doesn’t take a fortune teller to see that the numbers will go up. Here are five reasons why consumers will shop online heavily in 2020:

  1. COVID-related experiences of people going to the store to find empty shelves will get them to plan ahead and do their shopping online for the holidays.
  2. While some consumers may choose ship-to-store options, they’ll quickly discover inefficient order fulfillment processes at brick-and-mortar locations, which will mean long waits for people picking up items. After one bad experience, they will choose ship-to-home options instead, even if it costs more.
  3. A potential “second wave” of COVID infections, which many are predicting due to colder weather coming in November and through the winter, will likely delay shipments and fulfillments even more as workers get sick. Any potential second wave of lockdowns will force people once again to order items online.
  4. Warehouse workers are already feeling the pressure to fill orders amidst COVID-related delays. It’s unlikely that they’ll suddenly work less (or faster) during the holiday shopping season and feel happier about their jobs.
  5. Half of the country will be in a bad mood because of the 2020 election results in November (and we may not even know the results in December). The last thing that people will want is to be in a physical store or mall waiting behind someone who is annoyed because their candidate didn’t win.

Are there solutions? Sadly, probably not for this year, unless a retailer, third-party logistics provider or other warehousing operation is already in the middle of an automation program. Locus Robotics announced that its robots recently completed 200 million “picks”, and they will likely hit 300 million before the end of December.

Whether those picks actually make it to a customer in time for the holiday is another matter completely.

Our advice at this point? Order now, order early, and order often, before everyone else does.

Keith Shaw is a general partner at Robotics Data. He was the former editor-in-chief at Robotics Business Review, and has covered technology for more than 20 years.

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