June 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Time to Deliver

(Page 2 of 2)

Apparel retailer Express also expedites orders through a fulfillment provider, although unlike ArmorMount it uses an internally developed order management system to pass orders to Trilogy Fulfillment LLC, a unit of multichannel retail company Eddie Bauer LLC. Trilogy, which also handles fulfillment for Eddie Bauer, ships most orders through FedEx SmartPost: FedEx Corp. picks up orders from a fulfillment center and delivers each package to the United States Postal Service facility closest to the recipient; the Postal Service then delivers the parcel to the consumer.

Among other options retail shippers have are carriers that specialize in particular regions. OnTrac, for example, ships to California and six other western states, and will provide Sunday pickups for delivery on Monday, says director of business development Mark Magill. Quidsi, a subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc. that operates web-only merchants Soap.com and Diapers.com, uses OnTrac for next-day shipments to several western states. "It's the service of next-day air with a very efficient ground network—dramatically less cost," Quidsi executive vice president of operations Scott Hilton says in a Quidsi company video.

Customer choice

Like FedEx, UPS provides a local-delivery service through the Postal Service called SurePost, but also offers a personalized service called MyChoice that lets retail customers choose a day and time of delivery to their home address. The service addresses the fact that, regardless of how fast a retailer gets a package to a recipient's address, a delivery can get delayed for a day or more if a consumer isn't home to receive a package where leaving it on a doorstep is not an option, a spokesman says. By giving consumers more control over when and where they receive packages, retailers can ensure their fast fulfillment service hits its targeted delivery time, he adds.

Within the first six months after MyChoice launched in October 2011, more than 1 million consumers subscribed to it. Those 1 million customers received 7 million packages during the same period, including 1 million packages that UPS re-routed or delivered at a specific time according to a subscriber's request.

The basic MyChoice service is free. It provides a consumer information about the approximate delivery time and alerts of pending deliveries via e-mail, phone calls or text messages. With the free service, once a consumer receives a delivery alert she can request to have a package held at a UPS shipping center; for a $5 fee per request, she can request delivery at a particular time or to a UPS Store or other address. Those fee services come at no extra charge for consumers who pay a $40 annual subscription fee.

When you're famous...

While fulfilling online orders quickly is important, it's harder to do at peak times. That's when it's important for a retailer to prepare, and to set customer expectations at a realistic level. One e-retailer that recently went through that process was Harry Barker, a designer, wholesaler and online retailer of pet products ranging from "eco-friendly" hemp-and-cotton dog beds to personalized gift buckets filled with canine toys.

When it agreed to have its products featured in the "Deals and Steals" segment on ABC TV's "Good Morning America" show on February 23, CEO Jessica Gibadlo and e-commerce manager Anna Sims worried that the big-time exposure could overwhelm its ability to fulfill orders accurately and in good time. "We were worried about the worst-case scenario," Gibadlo says. She imagined the possibility of a rash of misplaced orders or a frozen site unable to accept and process orders. "It could have been a completely missed opportunity for national exposure. If we didn't execute well, it could have really hurt our customer service reputation."

But like the top dog at a big-time dog show, Harry Barker (named after founder Carol Perkins' Sheltie) strutted its stuff quite well, the retailer says. "We had two months' worth of sales in a single day," Gibadlo says. On other days, the order volume was triple the site's average. "It was massive," she adds. "But the orders were all fulfilled."

Harry Barker took several steps to make for a smooth transition from a niche web site to a nationally exposed one. It worked with Dydacomp, the provider of its online order management software and SiteLink e-commerce technology, to deploy an extra web server dedicated to handling customer orders, then batched the orders in groups of 30 before forwarding them to its warehouse. It also temporarily increased its warehouse and contact center staffs.

The TV show's viewers were instructed to go to the Good Morning America/Deals and Steals section on ABCNews.com, where they could find a link to a special landing page on HarryBarker.com for exclusive discounts on merchandise. Both the Harry Barker landing page and the TV show's host cautioned viewers that the special promotion could take extra time to process and ship orders because of the expected high volume of shoppers.

"We made it apparent that it could take 10 days for orders to be fulfilled," Gibadlo says. "Overall, it went really well. It went way better than our expectations."

Regardless of the fulfillment strategy a retailer deploys, it's also important to go back to customers and make sure they were satisfied with deliveries, Bailey at Whiteflash says. "We use internal surveys on our site as well monitor social media networks to ensure our reputation continues to be stellar," she says.

Amid all the competition, that's a good way for e-retailers to ensure they're delivering in a way that keeps their customers happy, especially during sales and holiday periods when stakes are high.

paul@verticalwebmedia.com

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