I’m an inspirational shopper who tends to analyse each aspect of every shop I do. This always gives me a lot to think about and two recent online experiences have left me with a case study into the world of the British independent retailer.

Both retailers sell high-end designer apparel and have been around more than 20 years. This was my first shop on both sites and both experiences were worlds apart. I am a big fan of independents and want them to win the battle in today’s competitive marketplace, but what consumers expect and what they will accept in their shopping experience is what will ultimately decide the future for both retailers and for others like them.

In the case of ‘Retailer A’, I bought six items after a frustrating hour of picking through a lot of items that were no longer in stock across all colours and sizes. This is a huge a faux-pas in my opinion. Never frustrate your shopper with what will never be in stock again. I’m pretty relentless when on a mission, so I carried on hunting. Other consumers will drop away after the first couple items.

‘Retailer B’ showed only what was available. Zero customer frustration.

Golden Rule #1– Ensure your site is always up to date – remove those out of stock sale items asap!

Thankfully both retailers offered checkout via PayPal. This is a bonus as it saves me digging out my debit card with all of the associated hassle. It also makes refunds faster and easier.

Golden rule #2– always make it fast and simple to pay.

As expected both retailers immediately sent an order confirmation. After that, the experience ends up worlds apart again.

I didn’t hear from Retailer A for more than 24 hours, and then it was a random email from PayPal saying I’d received a partial refund. Hmmm, one item was out of stock but I had to login into PayPal to find out what it was. Not good. Another day with silence, no expected order update or dispatch notice. Calls to customer service on their premium rate number were answered with a friendly automated message saying, “Due to a high volume of calls, no one can take your call. Please check the website or send an email to <support@emailaddress>.” I sent them two emails, a couple of tweets and then felt compelled to Google the company. They’d been saved from liquidation last summer through a buyout. I would have thought they would be working extra hard to solve system, process, and customer service problems. Later, I received an out of stock email about another item, but no refund. Three days after my initial order only three of the items I had ordered arrived, including the one from the out of stock email. So, I engaged my creativity and tenacity to track down a local number so I could call to speak to customer service agent. I wanted to find out what was happening with the remaining two items.

Golden Rule #3 – don’t make people responsible for your website inventory levels. There are too many points of failure and it takes too much time.

I was then enlightened about their fulfillment process by the customer service agenty. One item, I was told, was definitely out of stock. The other was being sent that day from their Edinburgh store. Normally I’m a big fan of an ‘endless aisle’ approach to stock management and fulfillment. Only when it’s done correctly though. Unfortunately, Retailer A relied on their store staff to move items to a ‘zero stock’, alert head office and then 8-10 hours (business hours, no doubt) later the item would be removed from the website.

You might think the story ends there, but it doesn’t. I found out a couple of days later, only by my tenacity again, that the last item was also out of stock. Only then were refunds issued promptly, including all shipping costs. I was left very disappointed. Suffice to say, I won’t be using them again. It’s a shame as I really liked the look of them from their products and the first impression I got from landing on their website.

Meanwhile, when I processed my payment and checkout on Retailer B’s website, it was clearly explained to me that “Due to the high volume of sale orders being processed it could take two days to receive your order”. This was explained as normally Retailer B provided ‘free next day shipping’. I received a despatch note and received my complete order on the second day. Result! I was happy and feel that I can trust this retailer and will shop there again.

Golden Rule #4 – clear, consistent communication with your customers is essential. Get it right!

The moral of this story is three-fold.

Inventory transparency is essential. Don’t give your customers a false sense of security that they can order an item if it might not be in stock. Ensure your website updates for inventory and product removal are as near real-time as possible.

Fix your fulfillment problems. You know what they are. Don’t ignore them and assume people will bear with you. They won’t.

Don’t make people pay to call your customer service. If you have points one and two working well, then you won’t get so many calls anyway. Make sure that a person answers the phone to give good customer service. Someone gave you their hard earned money and they have the right to speak to a person. Don’t make them waste their time emailing, tweeting, or hunting alternative phone numbers to a force response from you.

These are fundamental rules of retailing. Invest what you need to invest, fix what you know needs to be fixed, and listen to your customers. Do not ignore the obvious. Your front line staff are not going to save the company. They deal with the disappointed customers you will never have to talk to. Your interaction may end at the bottom of the sales report, but that isn’t good enough. Whether you are an independent retailer, or not, the fact remains your customers believe what you say on your site and expect without doubt that you will deliver. So do it, or face the consequences.


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