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46% of the UK's online shoppers are planning to leave their Christmas shopping until the last minute this year, despite the majority having little faith in the ability of retailers to deliver in time for the big day. 

This stat comes from an online Christmas shopping survey of 1,000 UK consumers carried out for Eptica, which also looked at how retailers were providing information on delivery. 

So what can retailers do to appeal to last minute shoppers and reassure them about delivery? 

The importance of delivery

The most obvious thing retailers can do is to ensure that orders arrive on time for consumers. Of course, most retailers have to place their trust in couriers or the Royal Mail, or both. 

This means that the 'last mile' is often out of their hands. However, if orders don't arrive on time, it isn't the couriers that get the blame, it's the retailer. 

In an Econsultancy / Toluna survey carried out in January, 28% of respondents said that they would not shop again with a retailer that failed to deliver on time.

Of course, even with an efficient mail service and a reliable courier, the weather (or postal strikes) can always throw a spanner into the works, as it did last year.

Retailers need to take every possible step to ensure that customers aren't disappointed this year. 

Christmas delivery: the stats

46% expect to leave gift shopping to the last minute, though expectations for delivery aren't great.

  • Just 33% expect that last minute orders will arrive on time. 
  • 40% don't trust the retailer to deliver on time, but are willing to give it a go. 
  • 27% expect last minute orders to be late. 

These consumers clearly have pessimistic attitudes about delivery at this time of year, but are they justified? 

Well, according to a survey we carried out about Christmas delivery last year, these attitudes are understandable. 

The results suggest that here were a lot of disappointed customers last Christmas, with 26.24% receiving orders late, though the heavy snow in December can explain much of this. 

57% of orders were just one day late, but a significant percentage have clearly had a terrible experience with late deliveries. Almost 20% of respondents experienced delays of more than a week on orders, and many presumably failed to arrive in time for Christmas. 

By comparison, 91% of retailers in Snow Valley's 2010 Online Retail Delivery Report, which measured delivery at a different time of year, managed to keep to the promised timescales. 

Are online retailers keeping customers informed? 

Eptica looked at 40 'leading' websites across a range of sectors, and found that 85% were not providing clear details of last order dates for Christmas. 

This is vital information, and will become more important to closer we get to Christmas. 

I've checked out a few e-commerce sites to see who is providing this information, and not many are doing so very clearly at the moment. 

John Lewis has a clear link to this Christmas delivery information from its homepage: 

However, this information wasn't available (or at least I couldn't find it) on Tesco, Next, and Amazon. 

It's early days yet, but all retailers should be providing this information as Christmas day, and final delivery deadlines are closer. Last minute shoppers will need to be reassured about final delivery dates before they make a purchase. 

What can retailers do? 

Clear messaging

The nearer to Christmas, the more important it is to make final delivery dates clear to customers. Clear messaging on the homepage is one way, as in this Next example from last Christmas: 

The countdown clock is a great way to convey this information, and also adds an extra sense of urgency for potential customers. 

Clear messaging is all the more important in the case of bad weather, as customers will arrive at your site wondering whether or not they can place on order for Christmas. 

From a retailer's perspective, allowing customers to shop right up to the last minute is a great way to maximise sales, and to steal a march on competitors with earlier cut-off times. 

Whether or not their gifts will arrive in time for the big day is a key concern for customers. It's far better to provide this reassurance clearly when they arrive at a website than to create doubts by not providing this info, or making them work too hard to find it.

Manage customer expectations

The handling of the chaos caused by the snow last year provided an interesting case study on how retailers manage customer expectations around delivery

In some parts of the country, the snow was so severe that retailers could simply not guarantee delivery, so there was a challenge to communicate this information clearly to customers. 

Some, such as John Lewis, decided on December 20th not to take any further orders for Christmas delivery. Under normal weather conditions the retailer could have had three more days to sell online, but better not to take orders than to disappoint customers. 

The key here is to manage expectations, provide clear information, and don't promise what you can't deliver.

Graham Charlton

Published 23 November, 2011 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

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Alex Mearns

I would say the mistrust is definitely justified, even without heavy snowfall.

Just over a week ago I placed a few orders with different e-retailers and not one of them has yet to arrive.

If that's the situation in November, I may end up going offline (retro) to do my shopping as the price is not that different as retailers increase their competition with online stores.

almost 5 years ago

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Innes

This isn't fully the etailers fault in my opinion. What must be remembered is the access and quality of the delivery / couriers that they have to hand. Its a case of who their suppliers are and how proficient their suppliers can operate around this time.

almost 5 years ago

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Geoff Love

This is all about communication between customers and retailers and therefore managing expectations. Something as simple as a text message from the retailer explaining to the status of the customer's order and its expected delivery date can make the whole process run more smoothly and is very inexpensive.

almost 5 years ago

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Robert Green

Of course the responsibility is with etailers - but sadly the fault is usually with the delivery businesses. I've lost count of how many times Royal Mail have misplaced entire sacks of customers orders for our customers - they are very cheap but commonly unreliable - we would rather pay more and have First Class service be reliable. The couriers are better, but an order of magnitude more expensive and their systems are often sadly lacking (TNT i am looking at you).

almost 5 years ago

John Courtney

John Courtney, CEO and Executive Chairman at Pay on Results SEO, Content Marketing, Social Media, Digital PR, PPC & CRO from Strategy Digital

Like anything off line as well as on line, its all about managing expectations. If you say 48 hours then customers expect 48 hours. If you really mean 7 days, just say so, and the customer wont hassle you until the time is up.

almost 5 years ago

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Nikki

Customers' jitteriness is understandable considering what's happened in the last two Christmas seasons. As you mentioned, clear communication is the key here. Also what Geoff said about sending a simple text message would go a long way to managing customer expectations.
Good article.

almost 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

I think retailers need to be honest to themselves and not kid around thinking they can deliver when they can't. Often the pressure to be competitive makes people extend last delivery date and crank the pressure on the fulfilment process.

However, not everyone has the infrastructure to be competitive with the big players like Asos, Tesco, Amazon etc. Sometimes you've got to find a different way to compete for Christmas purchases - no point making false promises, you'll just reduce the potential for repeat purchases by irritating people with failed delivery. Plus next year those proverbial chickens will come home to roost - we have elephant memories when it comes down to bad experience, not to mention our capacity to rant socially about it.

The point that Innes and Robert make is also bang on - sometimes retailers get let down. In the drop-ship environment this is issue is compounded because the retailer doesn't have direct control over the fulfilment piece, they are at the whim of their Suppliers, some of whom may be excellent, others less scrupulous when it comes to customer service.

thanks
james

almost 5 years ago

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Andy Kinsey

It will certainly be interesting this year to see whether numbers do drop. One thing we need to remember about this research is it was done in January when shoppers were angry. Some may forgive and forget, others won't, others know it wasn't our fault the weather turned but will get a little jittery. I don't see us as a sector having the huge drop in sales some would predict.

Sales for some sites this year has been low and is still low even though they should have picked up by this time of the year (the christmas survivor experts as i call them)... we are all struggling with a recession that beats any other as it has just gone on for so so long now. I think that people are waiting to shop and waiting to see what the weather report will be in 2 weeks after their november wage packet is in. I think only then will we know if online stores are suffering

almost 5 years ago

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jason walker

I'd have thought that people would have learned from last year. But maybe they haven't.

almost 5 years ago

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