December 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

Have It Your Way

Delivery becomes a differentiator when shoppers can choose the time and place to receive a web order.

Lead Photo

One of the primary reasons consumers shop online is convenience. But for busy consumers waiting and wondering about when a delivery will arrive, or finding a missed delivery label pasted to the front door when they get home from work, isn't convenient.

Aiming to remove some of the mystery and give consumers more control over the delivery process, e-retailers and shipping companies are coming up with new ways to let consumers know when a package will arrive and offering alternative delivery options that may make receiving online orders as convenient as placing them.

How a shopper feels about the delivery of her online order influences whether she'll shop with that e-retailer again. Data from post-purchase surveys conducted by e-retailer QVC.com show that 97% of consumers who give high marks to their delivery experience say they will buy from QVC.com again, says John Hunter, executive vice president of customer fulfillment services at QVC, part of Liberty Interactive Corp. "We get repeat buyers when we offer a great experience around delivery," Hunter says.

A big portion of providing that positive delivery experience is ensuring consumers have ready and accurate visibility into their orders and delivery status. "In the last few years what's become apparent is the importance of directing the delivery so people know when it is coming," Hunter says. QVC customer service representatives receive more calls from customers requesting information on where their package is than any other type, and the "check order status" service on QVC.com is the most frequently used service on the web site, he adds. United Parcel Service of America Inc. says it gets 26.2 million tracking requests a day.

Early warning

QVC.com, like 92% of all e-retailers included last year in The E-tailing Group's Annual Mystery Shopping Study of major web retailers, e-mails a shipping confirmation when an order leaves its distribution center. The e-mail QVC.com sends includes a UPS tracking number so consumers can follow the progress of their packages. But it also now includes something new: a link for consumers to sign up for UPS' My Choice program, which will send them an e-mail, text or recorded phone alert the day before the package is scheduled to arrive with an approximate delivery time.

If a recipient knows no one will be home to accept delivery, he can electronically authorize drivers to leave packages that normally require a signature. UPS launched the program in October and says more than 250,000 consumers signed up within its first six weeks. Department store retailer Kohl's Corp. also includes information and a link to the UPS program's web site in its shipping information area on Kohls.com.

UPS My Choice is just one of a host of options e-retailers and shipping carriers are introducing as they try to address a pain point for online shoppers: In a society where nearly as many women work as men, there is often no one at home to accept a package ordered from an e-commerce site. 64.9 million U.S. women were working in May 2011 versus 66.1 million men, according to the Pew Research Center.

Eliminating delivery worries could spur more consumers to shop online. And that's why retailers and delivery services are increasingly offering such options as in-store pick-up, scheduled home deliveries, advanced delivery alerts and, in the case of the leading online retailer by sales, Amazon.com Inc., package retrieval from a locker at a convenience store.

Increased visibility

U.K.-based apparel e-retailer Asos.com Ltd. has paid special attention to reassuring U.S. consumers about their deliveries—recognizing that many shoppers may be hesitant to order from a retailer based in another country—since starting to sell online to U.S. consumers about 18 months ago. Asos.com endeavors to prove to first-time American consumers that the purchase and delivery experience will be at least as good as if they were buying from a domestic e-retailer.

Free shipping on all orders is part of the strategy, and another part includes making sure consumers are kept informed as their orders move through the various delivery phases, says Stuart Hill, head of international operations at Asos.com. "If we are going into a foreign market, we have to be domestically competitive," he says. "For us, that means the experience the shopper gets is as close as they could get with someone else in the States."

Every U.S. Asos.com order ships from the e-retailer's distribution center in the U.K., boards a New York-bound flight from London, clearing U.S. customs electronically while in the air before being picked up by shipping carrier Newgistics Inc., which then delivers packages to the U.S. Postal Service center nearest the consumer's delivery address. The Postal Service makes the home delivery.

At each stage, a consumer gets an e-mail alerting him to his package's whereabouts, down to the flight number it's on out of London's Heathrow Airport. Once Newgistics receives the package in New York, it sends the consumer an Asos-branded e-mail with domestic tracking information, which he can then use to track the package's progress through Newgistics' network. Newgistics sends another Asos-branded alert when it delivers the package to the Postal Service; the message lets the consumer know his package is in his area and to expect it from the postman within the next day or two. Asos.com receives the same tracking information.

There's no extra charge to the retailer for providing the tracking information to consumers, says Newgistics vice president of marketing and field sales David Marinkovich, and the e-retailer controls how much information is e-mailed or visible to consumers. He says fewer than half of clients currently send their customers multiple notifications as Asos.com does, but says interest in the Newgistics alert program, called Transit Triggers, has grown greatly over the last six months, primarily because of the marketing opportunities the e-mail chain represents, as shipping alerts are one of the most frequently opened types of e-mail messages sent.

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