Online retail will be 18 this year, so what has the industry achieved during its childhood years?

This is my school leaver’s report for the industry as it moves into adulthood.

It’s the beginning of a new year (at least it was when I sat down to write this piece), and each year I look back at what I have achieved so far in my life.

I haven’t ticked many of the 100 Things to Do Before You Die off this year: I haven’t climbed Everest, visited either of the Poles (or Poland) and I’ve never been an outlaw in Peru. I did make it to the Rugby World Cup though, so it hasn’t been a bad year.

As I was retrospecting, it dawned on me that online retail is 18 this year. Old enough to vote, get married and even drink in the more civilised parts of the world, an adult.

So what have we, as an industry, achieved during our childhood years? A large proportion of the global population can now shop from wherever and whenever is most convenient. That would have seemed pretty amazing at the beginning of the 1990s.

But (there’s always a but, especially in articles like this), we still have plenty of room for improvement. So how can we measure the success of an entire industry? Revenue? Billionaires? Personal space rockets?

All of these are indicators, but I think that customer satisfaction is the most important metric, both for merchants and the industry as a whole.

Now that we don’t have to be physically present in a specific location to conduct our business it is much easier for us to go elsewhere, and it is very hard to persuade unsatisfied customers to come back.

What do our customers want, and how well is the e-commerce industry delivering on expectations?

I want to know that I am buying the best product for my needs.

If I want to buy a new laptop, DVD player or washing machine then I can research available products relatively easily. I can read expert reviews, peer reviews and technical specifications to find the product that is right for me.

Once I have made my decision I will end up with a search-friendly description, probably the make and model, identifying the product that I wish to buy. Most importantly I can be almost 100% sure that when I order what I receive will be the product that I have selected.

However, if I am looking for a new suit, a coffee table or some tomatoes then it is much more difficult to be certain that the product I receive will be the right size, colour or quality.

These types of merchandise, with more subjective attributes, are far less search-friendly and require additional reassurances for the consumer.

There tends to be far less information available about them and in the case of fresh produce may vary considerably in quality even when purchasing identically described goods from the same merchant.

There are vertical-specific solutions, e.g. apparel sizing gadgets and the use of high quality photography and video for luxury goods.

Innovation in these more challenging verticals will be the key to improving customer satisfaction and reducing returns.

Score: 5/10

I want to know that I am getting the best price.

Price comparison websites have made finding the best price for a given product fairly painless.

There are still discrepancies in reporting of shipping costs and sales tax, but if you have a make and model then finding the best spot price for a search friendly product is the work of a couple of minutes.

However, for those less search friendly products, price comparison is difficult or impossible. Factors such as brand and promotions become far more important. Pricing issues can be rectified through good customer service, but that only works if the customer trusts that the merchant will respect them in the morning.

Auction sites have been a game changer for shoppers. eBay and others have been phenomenally successful because they have enabled customers to set a price that they are willing to pay and created very efficient marketplaces.

Score: 9/10

I want to know that I will receive my purchase quickly and conveniently.

This is an area where the experience is still falling short of consumers’ expectations. There is a simple reason for this, it’s the most error-prone part of the process involving physical goods, people and transport.

There are lots of things to go wrong: Goods can be damaged or mis-picked in the warehouse, weather and traffic can interfere with delivery schedules and then there are the couriers, forgetful neighbours and the post office collections point on a Saturday morning…

I am not able to find any published figures for first-time residential delivery success rates in the UK, but I would be willing to lay a small wager that they are far less than 90% (unless, by deliver, you mean throw over a fence).

Collect in store, local collection points, evening and weekend delivery and more convenient delivery services such as those offered by Shutl and the supermarkets are improving the experience.

A selection of delivery and collection options enabling the customer to trade off price against convenience is a good approach, so long as the user experience is not too complex.

Score: 3/10

Most importantly, I want to know that if there are any problems I will be treated fairly.

“Anything that can go wrong, will – at the worst possible moment” is Finagle’s Law. We could debate whether or not this is actually true or whether is just seems that way when you have been placed on hold “for a moment” on the eve of your favourite relative’s birthday.

If something goes wrong with my order I want to be told about it, I don’t want to have to call customer service to ask them to find out. Send me an email or a text, even call me.

Don’t make me wait 20 minutes, listening to a message telling me that “my call is extremely important”, to eventually speak to a harassed customer service agent who can’t tell me where my order is.

Good customer service, something that sets the most successful retailers apart, is not just about cheerful, well trained customer service staff.

It’s about giving correct information and clearly communicating with the customer throughout the buying journey, through whichever channel they choose. It’s about having a clear picture of the customer so that the customer service team can make sensible decisions based on facts.

Score: 6/10

Grand Total: 23/40

Satisfactory, but only just…