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Our clocks have been adjusted to British Summer Time, Government guidelines are easing off – and the high street has dusted off the cobwebs and restocked its rails.

Today marks the long-anticipated return of in-store shopping.

Although the physical handling of stock is still a concern for retailers and consumers, many will be returning to their favourite stores from today (and they’re generally feeling confident about doing so). Covid-19 has undoubtedly reset the retail landscape, initiating the rise of eCommerce and, with that, a level of returns that can only come from the online shopping frenzy. So, as the high street reopens, and life starts to resemble some kind of normality, what do eCommerce players – including multichannel retailers – need to have front-of-mind to make the welcome back seamless and headache-free for shoppers? And how can eCommerce stay competitive?

Anticipating customer behaviour

Retailers need to both anticipate and appreciate how customers might react to marketing promotions, especially as the excitement for retail therapy resumes. For eCommerce retailers who are upping online advertising to drive online sales and compete with the high street, are their in-house fulfilment systems ready and can they cope with demand? What if customers want to go to the store to pick up their purchases instead? Is click and collect an option? Perhaps in-store marketing activations drive people to buy online. Will customer expectations be met here?

While there’s a real sense of shopping buzz with customers delighted to return to the shops, some might be less inclined.

Regardless of the situation, eCommerce has set a precedent for convenience and reliability recently, and has provided shoppers with the items they need through the pandemic. So, we expect it to maintain a reasonable foothold as in-store shopping opens again; and it’ll continue to be important for businesses to focus on the ‘delivery’ customer experience. This can serve as a real point of differentiation that enables eCommerce players to retain loyal customers.– James Hyde, CEO – James and James Fulfilment

The customer experience unpacked

Pre Covid-19, the hustle and bustle of customers exploring the new season ‘must-have’ in-store, finding their relevant size, and heading straight to the changing room to decide on what to keep is a long-distance memory. Over the last 12 months, with the opening and closing of non-essential shopping, this in-store experience adapted to accommodate various safety measures and shifted online for many. Online-only fashion retailers have had to think about how they create experiences without the physical presence of a changing room.

Having a slick, easy to use and traceable returns process and portal is a necessity. Those who buy fashion usually purchase more than one size of an outfit to try on at home and they’ll send back multiple items that don’t fit. So, ensuring this process is well-designed and managed online becomes crucial as part of the wider experience.

Returns data is key

After products are returned it’s also important to use the myriad of data received from previous orders to help guide future purchasing and stock decisions.

Harnessing returns intel, online retailers can update websites with more accurate product information, empowering consumers to make better-informed buying decisions when it comes to factors like size – and it reduces the burden on returns departments, too.

Physical touchpoints vs visual touchpoints

Understanding customer preferences related to how they interact with a brand is key to delivering a great customer experience – whether it’s online or in-store.

Shopper engagement with brand touchpoints all count towards perception, from the way stock is merchandised, to customer service interactions. These touchpoints and the data collected, help retailers understand how and where customers would interact further or better with them. From an eCommerce perspective, integrating a fulfilment provider as an extension of the team allows more order data to be collected and utilised; and for richer data-driven decisions to be made.

So what visual touchpoints are typically important? Fashion consumers respond well to high-quality product images – yet they respond even better to a more immersive, multi-media shopping experience with video content, with 73% of consumers having a willingness to buy afterward.

For many retailers, social media user-generated content (UGC) and reviews, hosted from their website, can help drive sales. While brick-and-mortar stores can engage in live ‘in-store’ activity on their social channels, those retailers without a high street presence will likely have to work harder to ensure their website and social media engages with their audience in the right way.

In contrast, in the case of physical touchpoints, some people see shopping as a hobby. The experience is social and recreational. They enjoy the interaction with friends, the in-store experience, and engaging with store assistants and products tactilely. That’s simply something you can’t get online, and so eCommerce brands will need to think creatively about their customers’ digital journey and interactions.

Partnering with a fulfilment provider to support direct-to-door deliveries can provide customers better transparency from the moment an order confirmation is received in their inbox. Just being able to see the journey a parcel takes, from warehouse to courier, gives confidence that online ordering is safe and secure.– James Hyde, CEO – James and James Fulfilment

So, who’s heading to the shops?

2021 will still involve a lot of guesswork and ‘what ifs’. But hand sanitiser, face masks, and other safety restrictions remain paramount. A question on many retailers’ minds is whether consumers will revert to old habits as Covid-19 restrictions ease and people begin to feel comfortable once again knowing that the vaccination programme is rolled out and the virus is at bay.

Through the pandemic, it’s reasonable to say that many consumers have developed a real penchant for online shopping – and this trend is expected to remain high. As a result, we’ll see pure-play eCommerce brands refining their proposition, customer experience and fulfilment options in efforts to compete with the high street.

Multi-channel retailers will need to consider fulfilment across their online/offline sales channels to nail that customer experience; and, to some extent, will have an advantage – unless eCommerce-only vendors continue to innovate, the way we’ve seen them do so over the past year.

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