Returning Christmas gifts – the forgotten challenge for retailers
Paul Galpin, Managing Director, P2P Mailing, outlines the importance of developing a customer-friendly returns platform if customer relationships are to be nurtured and extended beyond the festive period.
Christmas is the make-or-break period for many retailers. Christmas 2015 saw £24.4 billion being spent online - a 12 percent annual increase. While ecommerce companies fine-tune their delivery and fulfilment strategy to handle this volume upsurge, far less attention is given to the corresponding handling of returns. Who hasn’t heard a friend or relative say: “I’ve kept the receipt, if you don’t like it I can send it back”? And yet, too often, sending it back is a cause of frustration.
Getting the returns process right is crucial to customer satisfaction. Research by Harris Interactive shows that 85 percent of customers say they will stop buying from a retailer if the returns process is a hassle and, conversely, 95 percent will use the same catalogue or internet retailer again if the process is convenient. And there is certainly a demand for returns efficiency. Richard Hyman, an independent retail analyst, estimated that 45 percent of purchases made online during the Christmas period will be sent back.
Effective planning across delivery, fulfilment and returns from the outset should mean that things run as smoothly as possible during and after the Christmas rush. It’s always important to step back and view the process from a customer perspective, to ensure that services are clear, easy to use and reliable. Customers should be able to navigate the whole procedure simply and swiftly, and systems should be tested and tested again before being rolled out to the market.
By outsourcing the returns solution (and potentially the main distribution as well), companies can concentrate on simply producing a good website and online shopping experience for their customers. For small retailers in particular this may be an attractive option.
There are key benefits to partnering with an expert third party to plan and/or administrate the returns solution. The best providers will have the expertise to tailor the solution to the business, customising it to deal with national and regional differences where necessary and advising on the most appropriate shipping and returns options for the volume of mail being processed.
This third-party expertise is particularly useful for any businesses looking to sell to customers internationally. There can be import and duty considerations for customers located outside the EU, so it’s important that any system is set-up correctly to ensure that the e-commerce retailer is complying with regulations and that the process can continue to be cost-effective during peak traffic times.
It should also be possible to integrate with existing IT systems and logistics providers to ensure minimal disruption and cost. Ideally, the returns process should be integrated into the website on a white label basis, so that as far as the customer is concerned, everything looks and feels the same.
Ecommerce companies that ignore the returns process do so at their peril. There are many considerations to take into account. These not only include current requirements, but also how the business might grow, and whether the returns process has the flexibility to handle that growth. This may include consideration of overseas expansion and how the company will manage cross-border returns and the ensuing complications.
Ultimately, the returns process requires careful consideration to ensure that it works for the business and for the customer. Expert providers can help to develop a function that is flexible and efficient, tailored to the particular requirements of the business and equipped to deal with the challenges of the festive season and well beyond.
NTT DATA Services, Remodelling Supply Chains for Resilience
Joey Dean, the man with the coolest name ever and Managing Director in the healthcare consulting practice for NTT DATA and is focused on delivering workplace transformation and enabling the future workforce for healthcare providers. Dean also leads client innovation programs to enhance service delivery and business outcomes for clients.
The pandemic has shifted priorities and created opportunities to do things differently, and companies are now looking to build more resilient supply chains, none needed more urgently than those within the healthcare system. Dean shares with us how he feels they can get there.
A Multi-Vendor Sourcing Approach
“Healthcare systems cannot afford delays in the supply chain when there are lives at stake. Healthcare procurement teams are looking at multi-vendor sourcing strategies, stockpiling more inventory, and ways to use data and AI to have a predictive view into the future and drive greater efficiency.
“The priority should be to shore up procurement channels and re-evaluate inventory management norms, i.e. stockpiling for assurance. Health systems should take the opportunity to renegotiate with their current vendors and broaden the supplier channel. Through those efforts, work with suppliers that have greater geographic diversity and transparency around manufacturing data, process, and continuity plans,” says Dean.
But here ensues the never-ending battle of domestic vs global supply chains. As I see it, domestic sourcing limits the high-risk exposure related to offshore sourcing— Canada’s issue with importing the vaccine is a good example of that. So, of course, I had to ask, for lifesaving products, is building domestic capabilities an option that is being considered?
“Domestic supply chains are sparse or have a high dependence on overseas centres for parts and raw materials. There are measures being discussed from a legislative perspective to drive more domestic sourcing, and there will need to be a concerted effort by Western countries through a mix of investments and financial incentives,” Dean explains.
Wielding Big Tech for Better Outcomes
So, that’s a long way off. In the meantime, leveraging technology is another way to mitigate the risks that lie within global supply chains while decreasing costs and improving quality. Dean expands on the potential of blockchain and AI in the industry.
“Blockchain is particularly interesting in creating more transparency and visibility across all supply chain activities. Organisations can create a decentralised record of all transactions to track assets from production to delivery or use by end-user. This increased supply chain transparency provides more visibility to both buyers and suppliers to resolve disputes and build more trusting relationships. Another benefit is that the validation of data is more efficient to prioritise time on the delivery of goods and services to reduce cost and improve quality.
“Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) is another area where there’s incredible value in processing massive amounts of data to aggregate and normalise the data to produce proactive recommendations on actions to improve the speed and cost-efficiency of the supply chain.”
Evolving Procurement Models
From asking more of suppliers to beefing up stocks, Dean believes procurement models should be remodelled to favour resilience, mitigate risk and ensure the needs of the customer are kept in view.
“The bottom line is that healthcare systems are expecting more from their suppliers. While transactional approaches focused solely on price and transactions have been the norm, collaborative relationships, where the buyer and supplier establish mutual objectives and outcomes, drives a trusting and transparent relationship. Healthcare systems are also looking to multi-vendor strategies to mitigate risk, so it is imperative for suppliers to stand out and embrace evolving procurement models.
“Healthcare systems are looking at partners that can establish domestic centres for supplies to mitigate the risks of having ‘all of their eggs’ in overseas locations. Suppliers should look to perform a strategic evaluation review that includes a distribution network analysis and distribution footprint review to understand cost, service, flexibility, and risks. Included in that strategy should be a “voice of the customer” assessment to understand current pain points and needs of customers.”
“Healthcare supply chain leaders are re-evaluating the Just In Time (JIT) model with supplies delivered on a regular basis. The approach does not require an investment in infrastructure but leaves organisations open to risk of disruption. Having domestic centres and warehousing from suppliers gives healthcare systems the ability to have inventory on hand without having to invest in their own infrastructure. Also, in the spirit of transparency, having predictive views into inventory levels can help enable better decision making from both sides.”
But, again, I had to ask, what about the risks and associated costs that come with higher inventory levels, such as expired product if there isn’t fast enough turnover, tying up cash flow, warehousing and inventory management costs?
“In the current supply chain environment, it is advisable for buyers to carry an in-house inventory on a just-in-time basis, while suppliers take a just-in-case approach, preserving capacity for surges, retaining safety stock, and building rapid replenishment channels for restock. But the risk of expired product is very real. This could be curbed with better data intelligence and improved technology that could forecast surges and predictively automate future supply needs. In this way, ordering would be more data-driven and rationalised to align with anticipated surges. Further adoption of data and intelligence and will be crucial for modernised buying in the new normal.
These are tough tasks, so I asked Dean to speak to some of the challenges. Luckily, he’s a patient guy with a lot to say.
On managing stakeholders and ensuring alignment on priorities and objectives, Dean says, “In order for managing stakeholders to stay aligned on priorities, they’ll need more transparency and collaborative win-win business relationships in which both healthcare systems and medical device manufacturers are equally committed to each other’s success. On the healthcare side, they need to understand where parts and products are manufactured to perform more predictive data and analytics for forecasting and planning efforts. And the manufacturers should offer more data transparency which will result in better planning and forecasting to navigate the ebbs and flows and enable better decision-making by healthcare systems.
Due to the sensitive nature of the information being requested, the effort to increase visibility is typically met with a lot of reluctance and push back. Dean essentially puts the onus back on suppliers to get with the times. “Traditionally, the relationships between buyers and suppliers are transactional, based only on the transaction between the two parties: what is the supplier providing, at what cost, and for what length of time. The relationship begins and ends there. The tide is shifting, and buyers expect more from their suppliers, especially given what the pandemic exposed around the fragility of the supply chain. The suppliers that get ahead of this will not only reap the benefits of improved relationships, but they will be able to take action on insights derived from greater visibility to manage risks more effectively.”
He offers a final tip. “A first step in enabling a supply chain data exchange is to make sure partners and buyers are aware of the conditions throughout the supply chain based on real-time data to enable predictive views into delays and disruptions. With well understand data sets, both parties can respond more effectively and work together when disruptions occur.”
As for where supply chain is heading, Dean says, “Moving forward, we’ll continue to see a shift toward Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and advanced analytics to optimise the supply chain. The pandemic, as it has done in many other industries, will accelerate the move to digital, with the benefits of improving efficiency, visibility, and error rate. AI can consume enormous amounts of data to drive real-time pattern detection and mitigate risk from global disruptive events.”