Google “e-commerce customer experience” and you’ll get plenty of results that focus on the importance of intuitive website navigation and simplified ordering processes. But you won’t find much about the role of fulfillment.
It’s natural to think first of fulfillment primarily in terms of its potential negative effects. Late, inaccurate or damaged shipments all lead to dissatisfaction and discourage repeat purchases.
But for many consumer brands and retailers, simply meeting baseline expectations can represent a missed opportunity. By surprising and delighting customers through an exceptional delivery experience they can differentiate, build loyalty and strengthen their brand image.
Accomplishing this experience requires a fulfillment operation capable of exceptional speed and agility while tailoring packaging to the brand image.
Retailers and consumer brands have been playing a game of catch-up when it comes to fulfillment speed, continually chasing customer expectations.
Compressing delivery times stresses warehouse processes and increases transportation costs and complexity. This is particularly true for midsize retailers and consumer brands who are serving B2B, retail and D2C channels from the same centralized distribution center. They don’t have the luxury of dedicated e-commerce systems and processes that enable them to consistently meet the two-day delivery times customers now expect.
And, just as they iron out those processes, the bar gets raised even higher with next-day and same-day delivery.
Fortunately, there’s a way off this treadmill. The “secret sauce” for achieving next-day or same-day delivery is ensuring products are already positioned close to the customer at the time the order is placed through a distribution network with nodes in major metropolitan areas.
This may seem like a cost-prohibitive proposition for all but the largest players, and it is if retailers go at it alone. But when they pool their resources by working with a 3PL that is consistently investing in technology and new distribution centers, they can increase service consistency and offer their customers unexpectedly fast fulfillment.
Plus, by leveraging the resources and expertise of an experienced 3PL, retailers can become more agile in their approach to the market and their customers and leverage packaging expertise that enhances the brand image.
Special events and exclusive product launches can help reinforce loyalty among a brand’s best customers. It’s exciting for a select group of customers to have early access to a new, limited-edition product. But if it then takes three or more days for that product to arrive or if some customers get the new product days before others because they live closer to the fulfillment center, much of that excitement is lost.
Few organizations have the in-house expertise and resources to support customer-centric events and launches. That puts unnecessary limitations on retail and brand creativity. Working with a 3PL ensures retailers and consumer brands have the flexible infrastructure, project management expertise and scalable resources to support the launches and events at the heart of many loyalty programs.
That agility should also extend to returns-handling. Ensuring returns are hassle-free can increase sales while efficient returns processing reduces e-commerce costs.
Think again about that limited-edition product launch to a select group of customers. What if the product were to arrive within 24 hours or less to all loyalty program members, regardless of their location? It makes for a completely different experience.
Packaging is another area where brands can differentiate and strengthen their image. Whether your brand is based on luxury, sustainability or economy, your packaging is either working to support your brand image or working against it.
Customers of premium and luxury brands should “feel” the brand in the unboxing experience while brands that emphasize sustainability can erode their credibility with packaging that appears wasteful or is not recyclable.
A 3PL can not only help you design a packaging solution that ensures your customers experience your brand in the desired way, they can create that experience without inhibiting the efficiency of the fulfillment process. They can also help customize packaging size to optimize transportation costs and consistently execute on personalization strategies, such as hand-signed notes inserted into every package.
The challenge brands face isn’t in developing the innovations that will differentiate their offerings, it is in executing those innovations across complex omni-channel supply chains. Brands that have been most successful at supporting new e-commerce and omni-channel services have been those that recognize the limitations of their in-house supply chain expertise and partner with a 3PL that can deliver the scale, flexibility and operational excellence required to support continuous innovation.