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.