Technology has changed the business world as we know it in many ways. One noticeable transformation is the way consumers shop, not just in terms of buying goods but also the research process, order fulfillment and continued support — and that’s changing direct-to-consumer shipping.
Most purchases start with online research, whether that includes watching videos about a product or reading customer reviews. Then, to buy the product, customers complete a transaction online or visit a local store — both options are usually available. In either case, the purchase journey is not over even when the item lands in that customer’s hands. They want continued support for the life of the product, which many companies now deliver through social media and online forums, in addition to conventional service channels.
Of course, this scenario doesn’t factor in the purchase experience of online orders, through companies such as Amazon. A customer purchase through an e-tailer or online retailer is entirely different than, say, a purchase from Walmart or other big-box retailers.
But all this change has had the most impact on the direct-to-consumer shipping experience. It’s altered the relationship between business and customer so much that the current landscape looks nothing like it did just years before. Even those big-box retailers have changed how they ship products to their customers.
Here are just a handful of ways in which the direct-to-consumer shipping experience is changing day by day.
The lines between offline and online shopping experiences have blurred considerably in recent years. Customers can now purchase a product online and pick it up in the store, or purchase a product in a store and have it shipped to their home, among many other innovative opportunities.
More importantly, the experience of moving from online to in-store has also blended. Consumers can now bring product recommendations and customer offers presented online and via mobile to the store, where the management will honor them in person.
One thing many don’t realize is how mobile use — whether through an app or just mobile-friendly site designs — helps increase traffic to stores. Retailers are smart to integrate their mobile experience with what they offer in their brick-and-mortar store to augment the entire journey. Buyers can use apps in stores to check prices, share customer rewards and loyalty information and even take advantage of exclusive promotions. Starbucks, for example, increased its store traffic by 2% using a variety of mobile strategies.
Google’s local search function — available through most web search engines in a similar format — helps potential customers discover nearby locations, as well.
Many customers visit a store to either demo a product or get a better understanding of it. They may conduct research online beforehand, yet they still want to see and handle the products and experience what they have to offer. While this isn’t true of all products or goods, it’s certainly still a relevant trait of many.
But thanks to mobile and more immersive technologies — like virtual and augmented reality — this is no longer necessary. Customers can have a decidedly physical experience, without ever stepping foot inside a local store.
One excellent example of this is Ikea’s Place app, which allows customers to overlay the company’s furniture in various settings thanks to AR. Similar to Pokemon Go, the app presents items in the real world using the phone’s camera. This way, they can see if a couch or shelving unit is going to fit, and how it might look with their decor and spaces. It’s a brilliant idea that serves Ikea’s brand strategy well and puts them in a position to digitize the buying process, including a potential direct-to-consumer shipping volume increase.
Where once, customers would need the physical product in hand to envision it in their space — which involved extensive shipping processes to send and return items, as necessary — now they can use modern tech to make it happen. The logistical issues associated with trial and demo programs are becoming a thing of the past.
Often, manufacturers must be concerned about product packaging, at least when it comes to presentation. They know they’ll need to compete with other, similarly packaged products in the store.
But this new online and customer-focused landscape means even big-box retailers must consider direct-to-consumer shipping elements from a customer service standpoint. It’s especially vital for online orders and more modern fulfillment processes. How do you make the goods more presentable to the consumer online, then honor that presentation through to the customer’s doorstep? A mashed-up, unsightly packaging or shipping box is never ideal.
It introduces a bevy of new fulfillment and shipping requirements across the industry, on top of more conventional needs.
Not long ago, many companies kept customer inventory systems and item availability relatively close to the chest. But this is changing with more direct-to-consumer shipping. A customer visiting a store might be able to ask an associate whether a hard-to-find product was in stock, yet they often couldn’t review this information themselves. In cases where the details were available, they were hardly ever accurate. A visit to the store might reveal the in-demand item wasn’t in stock after all, despite evidence to the contrary.
That problem has entirely changed in today’s landscape. Big-box retailers now honor a more public and open inventory system where customers can see the availability of nearly all items carried in store and online. If something is not available in store, they always have an option to purchase online, with convenient direct-to-consumer shipping choices.
Furthermore, offline and online purchases blend, providing customers hassle-free return options. You can purchase a product online, and walk into a store to exchange or return it if need be.
There’s clearly a push toward more convenient and consumer-friendly operations across the board. Flexible policies help foster stronger relationships between a business and its customers, particularly when it comes to increasing trust and brand loyalty.
Think about it. While Amazon has an excellent customer return policy and fast shipping times, there’s always the allure of in-person and big-box retail experiences. If someone can get the same product through a local retailer as they can on Amazon, for the same price, the option to return the item to the store or pick it up the same day is likely to tip them toward shopping in person. It’s especially true if they get the best of both worlds, meaning they can buy online, but pick up in store. That’s why many big-box retailers are going this route with their operations: It gives them a clear advantage and strengthens competition.
It doesn’t matter whether you focus on one of these trends or all of them — it’s clear the direct-to-consumer shipping field is changing. For the most part, those changes are for the better, allowing for stronger relationships, higher customer satisfaction ratings and, of course, increased revenue.
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