Today (1 December) is 'Cyber Monday', forecast to be not just the busiest day in the run-up to Christmas but the busiest internet shopping day ever, according to Amazon. Since online shopping took root, the Monday that follows the Thanksgiving weekend in the US is now firmly established as the most important day in the retail calendar around the world.
Smart retailers have already realised the opportunity provided by the fact that customers' online expectations have dramatically increased. Simply letting them navigate your website unaided is not enough. Frustration over confusing navigation, unclear offers, delayed deliveries and a lack of swift responses to complaints or queries can lead to enormous brand damage.
These online customers judge their shopping experience on the best (usually the most recent) service they received from any service provider or supplier. Retail websites need to be as good as or even better than their nearest competition.
Customer service agents need to be vigilant to ensure customer queries and issues are solved at the first contact point, as well as being ready with the customer's transaction history in case they are called upon to help and advise.
But if these basics are right, the omens are good, as online sales will play a key role in Christmas shopping this year, making up £13bn of spend with more shoppers recognising the convenience this channel offers in such a busy period. According to Adobe, almost a fifth (19.3%) of total European online sales for 2014 will come during the Christmas shopping period. Cyber Monday alone is likely to see a spend of around £281m.
Since the recession, consumers and retailers have played a cat-and-mouse, wait-and-see game, with customers hoping for last minute bargains before Christmas, which is why fulfillment of all these online orders needs to be watertight.
Retailers also need to understand the pace at which technology is transforming retail. In particular, 4G and mobile devices are turbo-charging the way we shop, giving us the ability to shop anytime, anywhere. The expectation is customers will shop at the time of their choice, on the device of their choice, and be able to get immediate answers to the questions of their choice. Mobile commerce firm Weve found that nine out of 10 shoppers are using their smartphone when Christmas shopping, which brings a danger for retailers too. Those retailers that have invested in their mobile channels, such as John Lewis, can expect to see an additional sales boost.
Total retail strategy
The pressure and consumer expectation around Cyber Monday alone means it will be more important than ever for retailers to ensure they have a total retail strategy for the digital age, offering customers integrated online and offline experiences.
PwC has lauded high-end retailer Burberry in its report "Profitable growth in a digital age: From multi-channel to Total Retail". Not only can shoppers explore and buy their latest products online, but in store the assistants armed with iPads can show customers new arrivals and shopping ideas, and at the same time check stock levels. RF tags on the products in-store are connected to the video screens, so that the screen can showcase what a customer is carrying. And of course Burberry's Twitter feed keeps interest in their latest lines high among 3.36 million followers.
After-sales support is also crucial. Comparison shopping website FatWallet.com predicts tech items like HDTVs, tablets, video game consoles and smartphones will be among the best sellers this Christmas, so retailers need to ensure they have the resources to field calls for help on Christmas Day, because failure to provide assistance for how a gadget works will ruin Christmas for tech present newbies and earn them a reputation as the season's Grinch. The flood of negative comments on social media that followed problems around the launch of the latest Assassin's Creed and World of Warfare games are a warning of pitfalls to avoid.
At this busiest time of the year, it can be difficult for retailers to prioritise and respond to all these demands. So that's why preparation, planning, and the right mix of ever-improving, seamless customer experience will win the day. Increasingly, business process management companies (BPMs) are being used by some retailers to meet this huge seasonal demand.
This granular level of detail and capability BPMs bring to the retail space can be a game-changer. They are able to identify insights and trends down to the individual customer and their emerging preferences. They can anticipate the appropriate time to offer additional products and services in a seamless, non-intrusive way when the customer is browsing or purchasing online. They are even able to identify potential problems later on in the customer journey before the customer themselves experiences them, and fix them through proactive interventions. Based on what the customer does, they are able to advise retailers of future service offers that will appeal to the customer to ensure their future engagement and brand loyalty.
Perhaps most crucially at Christmas, outsourcers also have the ability to bring in highly qualified staff to help with the manpower spikes and technical interactions that might be required over the holiday season.
This Cyber Monday, more than any previous year, retailers need to be prepared for a new breed of customer or could suffer long-lasting brand damage. However, those retailers that maximise this opportunity with seamless integration of all their online and offline channels will find that Christmas really can come early.
Dermot Walsh is vice president, business development at Firstsource Solutions.