August 22, 2014, 2:44 PM

Back To School offers a testing ground for the holidays

Shoppers heading back to school aren't so unlike shoppers that will be looking for gifts in the coming holiday season.

Back to school, the second-busiest retail season of the year, is upon us. Though dwarfed by holiday sales, the $72.5 billion consumers spent, per National Retail Federation data, on back-to-school/college supplies in 2013 is nothing to sneeze at.

As more shoppers increasingly head online in search of back-to-school deals, they are seeking convenience and flexibility to breeze through lengthy shopping lists in just a few clicks. As a result, e-commerce retailers are challenged to provide the most frictionless shopping experience possible for these busy customers.

And, these shoppers aren’t so unlike those that will be returning in a few months to buy a bundle of gifts. So here’s a tip: treat Back to School like a dress rehearsal for the holiday season. It offers a prime opportunity to stress test customer service and fulfillment operations in advance of the coming holiday push. By fine-tuning service operations now and wowing customers searching for back-to-school deals, retailers will be well-positioned to make a positive impression that keeps customers coming back throughout the holiday shopping rush in November and December.

Here are a few considerations for retailers to ensure they are delighting online shoppers during the back-to-school season in a way that leaves them well-prepared for the holiday rush.

1. Staff up contact centers: More shoppers means more questions. A contact center that is fully staffed with highly trained customer service agents can move the needle for shoppers making final purchase decisions.

Of course, staffing is just the first step. Agents need to be quickly brought up to speed on store policies and receive as much training as possible on the products being sold. Back to school is a prime time to run contact center diagnostics to gauge if the speed and quality of customer care are compromised during peak seasons. Retailers should look at metrics like issue resolution to determine if customer service calls are being answered effectively, which will hopefully reduce costly repeat contacts.

2. Focus on customer convenience: Convenience is key for back to schooland holiday shoppers. Throughout the busy back-to-school period, heavily trafficked office supply retailers like Staples, Office Max and Office Depot promote multi-channel initiatives to appeal to busy shoppers and ease the purchasing process. For example, an initiative like Staples’ reserve online and pick up in store service is the kind of option shoppers value during busy seasons and will likely remember when making purchasing decisions during the holidays.

The late summer/early autumn period is a time to fine-tune multichannel initiatives like these so operations are running smoothly for customers during the busier Q4.

3. Ensure packages arrive on time: According to the NRF, shoppers are waiting later into August to score the best deals before making final back-to-school purchases, which leaves retailers with a narrower window to ensure products arrive on time. Ultimately, focusing on fulfillment can make or break the customer experience during high volume shopping periods.

However, ensuring a speedy delivery isn’t impossible during retail crunch times. Our data show that retailers like Abercrombie, Urban Outfitters, Amazon and Staples actually improved shipping times during August 2013 compared to the three months prior. Internally emphasizing the importance of fulfillment and delivery speed will leave customers delighted. And timely deliveries will stick out in the memories of last minute holiday shoppers come December.

4. Perfect multiple product orders - The idea of one-stop shopping is music to the ears of busy back to school and holiday shoppers alike. However, properly fulfilling multiple product orders can be a struggle for any retailer, even Amazon. For shoppers on a deadline, receiving one order in three different packages on three different days can be disruptive. When possible, include all items in the same box or coordinate for same-day delivery of all items. Retailers should also provide specific returns instructions, as consumers could be confused with the process when they’re juggling multiple products that arrived in separate packaging.

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