For anyone thinking of buying online between now and Christmas Eve, one of the biggest questions will be 'can this retailer deliver in time for Christmas?'.

However, many ecommerce sites are still way too vague about this information. This means that people will either decide not to order, or will press ahead and risk disappointment. 

With the example of children's onesies (which seem to be like hen's teeth this year), I'll be looking at the approaches of different sites. 

Why is this so important? 

This is about managing customer expectations, and improving retention through clear messaging and delivering on promises. 

Last year, stats show that during December at least 225,000 parcels each day failed to arrive when promised, while 60% of people shopping online last year had problems with delivery of their item.

The previous year, if you cast your mind back, was the one where snow caused chaos and disrupted many a delivery. We surveyed customers after this and found that almost 28% of respondents said that they would not shop again with a retailer that failed to deliver on time.

We surveyed people in January 2012 and asked for reflections on the Christmas online shopping and delivery experience. The good news is that 87% of consumers received their orders when promised, but that does leave an unsatisfied minority. 

Q: Did your orders arrive when retailers said they would? (1,000 UK respondents)

This time, it would appear that attitudes to failed delivery had hardened, with 59% saying they would abandon a retailer which failed to meet its delivery promises. 

Q: If a retailer failed to deliver on time, would you shop with them again? (1,000 UK respondents)

In a nutshell, this is the worst time of year to cock up customer deliveries. Better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way round. 

What do customers want? 

  • Clear, accurate tracking online. This can save a lot of wasted time and reduce pressure on call centres. 
  • Informative, proactive communication (text, phone or email updates). I was impressed by the SMS notifications used when I ordered gifts from Hobbs last Christmas. It sent me a one hour delivery slot, allowing me to change it if inconvenient. This is also offered by Kiddicare: 

  • Good communication when problems (inevitably) occur. Even the best online retailers will experience delivery issues now and then. The key here is to communicate with customers - don't make them work too hard to find out about their delivery. 
  • Non premium rate phone numbers.  Premium rate phone numbers for customer service are a big mistake. Having failed to deliver items, don't add insult to injury by making them pay for the call.  
  • Greater levels of support from the retailer. As a retailer, it's not enough to just palm delivery problems off onto the courier and have customers chasing their order up. Customers will hold the retailer, not the courier, responsible so be pro-active in following up problems. 
  • Clear messaging about delivery. This is a key question, and a barrier to purchase. Make the delivery timescales clear, and don't promise what you can't deliver. 
  • A range of delivery options. This is the time when flexible and varied delivery options come into their own. Can you offer next day delivery? If so, great. You can sell online later than your rivals. 

    Our online retail survey carried out in August found that 50% of consumers had abandoned purchases due to a lack of suitable delivery options. We also found that people are prepared to pay more for 'premium' delivery options which offer more flexibilty. This is what people want when they need items quickly.

    We asked respondents which of these 'premium' options would be more likely to make them buy online. The certainty of a fixed date is the most popular choice (31%), closely followed by next day delivery and the ability to collect from stores (both 24%). 

Thinking about 'non-standard' delivery options, what would make you more likely to buy online?

Of course, retailers are in many cases reliant on the performance of couriers and, at this time if year, the sudden expansion of staff to meet demand can present problems. 

However, customers don't care about that. If goods don't arrive on time, they blame the retailer, not the courier. 

The importance of clear messaging

I think it's vital to keep customers informed about delivery timescales at this time of year, so I like to see clear messaging from sites. However, some fail to do this. 

How not to do it

Take Next for example. I want to buy this onesie for my daughter, and Next shows it's in stock in the size I want: 

Once I add it to my basket though, I get this message: 'this item should be despatched within 2 weeks'. 

This is no good if I want it in time for Christmas. Also, there's no more explanation, so it's up to the customer whether they want to take the chance, which isn't really good enough. 

H&M is another site that gets it wrong. There's no special delivery message on the site, which I'd say is essential at this time of year. 

Moreover, the delivery information is not available until checkout, and even then it's vague. 

It just states that delivery will be between December 23 and 27. That doesn't help at all, while clicking for further info doesn't shed much light on the matter. 

The bottom line is, there is no information on whether H&M can deliver in time for Christmas. It doesn't even mention Christmas. So who would order any gifts from here? 

Good examples

M&S does a better job. On the product page, it tells you whether you can get this item in time for Christmas. 

I like this example from House of Fraser. Clear messaging on last delivery dates. Shame it doesn't stock a kids' animal onesie with a tail... 

You can't fail to miss this messaging from ASOS either: 

There are a variety of different approaches to this issue from retailers, but a clear message on the homepage and reminders on product and checkout pages are the clearest approaches. 

The key is to keep customers informed and manage expectations about delivery timescales.

Graham Charlton

Published 17 December, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (12)

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Michael Lawrence, Director of Marketing at Inc.

I can tell you I have abandoned from a number of online purchases over shady shipping. The price looks great until you get to the last stage and then the shipping options are put in a sneaky way. Often times after you've filled out the bulk of the information to complete the order. I'm sure some impulse orders happen this way but I would argue more people are like me and abandon never to return. After you've burned a bridge with a consumer it's very difficult to get them on your side again.

over 4 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

Graham, this squares firmly with what we hear from customers, we've worked hard to try and offer a good delivery service, I'd encourage other businesses to give it similar focus. But don't just take my word for it, here's some of the feedback we've gotten this week already:

"I can't believe that you got them too me so quickly within 15 hours. Such a great service and recommended to everyone in the office who thought they were perfect for the up and coming event. Thank you"

"Excellent service.Girlfriend loved her boots so much she slept in them : ) "

Feedback about good delivery service is the number one (by far) type of feedback we get, just think of the number of advocates you can create for your business when you get it right:

over 4 years ago

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart, Founder at System Concepts

Absolutely on the mark Graham. it's not rocket science and even rudimentary usability testing demonstrates that this is a key issue for users. Living in a small village, I am a great fan of click and collect to avoid the delivery lottery. When the original iPad mini was in short supply, I ordered on the PC World/Currys website, collected locally a couple of hours later and while someone went backstage to get my iPad, another salesperson sold me a nice case! Win/win.

over 4 years ago

martin flanagan

martin flanagan, Jupiterblue

To be fair, it's not always down to the retailers. Unless some huge corp who a carrier will worry about upsetting most smaller retailers will struggle with reliability of delivery at this time of year. Most will have learnt to under promise to allow for this.

over 4 years ago



Agree with Martin, smaller retailers struggle with getting couriers to meet the specific deadlines for orders.

This then goes back down the chain in the messaging to the customer. If a customer is told that they'll definitely get something by a certain date and then they don't because of the courier it's the retailer that gets the blame...

So for businesses like asos who have a stronger power over the couriers it's much easier to give definitive dates. Everyone else, not so much...

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

@Martin @Gareth Yes, I think smaller retailers do face a challenge here, but the problem is that customers will tend to blame the retailer for delivery hiccups, even when it's the courier's fault.

Here, I think the only answer is to be open and honest with the customer, and only to promise what you're sure the courier can deliver.

over 4 years ago


Gareth Williams

Whilst I agree that life is generally tougher all round for smaller retailers, the thrust of this article is about being honest with customers. There is often an assumption that buyers overwhelmingly look at product information first and then delivery information as an afterthought. This is simply not true. Even at "slack" times of year, 30% of people will be more interested in your delivery proposition, and in December - well, of course - the number will be much higher.

Great article, thanks.

over 4 years ago

Gordon Maw

Gordon Maw, Director at MAW Communications

Interesting stuff, Graham. Just to update the detail on the text alerts and one hour delivery slot service you mentioned in relation to Kiddicare. The service is called Predict and is offered by parcel company DPD and its sister company Interlink Express and is used by a great number of online retailers.

The service was extended earlier this year with the ability to actually watch your delivery driver making his way around his route and count down the number of stops to your delivery.

There is a short video to explain it all here:

I hope this is useful.

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

Thanks Gordon, I like the idea of counting down the number of stops.

over 4 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

I think Gordon makes an important point, the tracking is really important to customers, and is something that is available to all business sizes. Yes, sometimes couriers charge more for trackable services, but the certainty makes all the difference to customers.

over 4 years ago


Paul Hilton

Great article, have to say I got caught out on the Next site. It said the item was in stock but when entering the checkout it would be available within 1 week - not good.

over 4 years ago


Natasha Green

It's very difficult for retailers to monitor the delivery service themselves. An incentivised customer survey would go a long way to managing and maintaining delivery operations.

Lets not forget though, the delivery service forms the main part of the problem, not the retailer. Some delivery staff fail to take notice of additional and feasible delivery options (like a sign posted concierge) if the package receiver is unavailable. It's a real shame because the lack of some staff's intuitiveness causes real delays for customers and sheds a bad light on the retailer.

over 4 years ago

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