How flexibility can help brands plug the convenience gap

As a UX professional, Lola Oyelayo lives in constant disappointment that brands don't just let customer experience experts do their job. But she can offer a potential solution...

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Much like food critics can be both a restaurant’s best friend and worst nightmare, a UX or CX professional can make for a problematic customer. Unfortunately, you can’t get really around it and I spend much of my time as a customer facing endless disappointments. However, that doesn't mean I've given up hope that one day any one of the many brands I buy from will just let the CX people do their jobs. 

Recently, while fighting a fever and feeling sorry for myself, I decided to indulge in a spot of online shopping. I've needed a new side table for a while and I've heard retail therapy has the power to remedy any number of ills. When you’re unwell, the mundane becomes a potential saviour.

I haven’t bought furniture for a while, so I wasn’t particularly fixed on a brand or retailer that I would start with. Enter Google. Skipping a few steps, Next clearly have a great SEO team and within a couple of clicks I had found the perfect table. This is where my battle between good and bad started. I’ll start with the good:

  • The checkout flow was fairly quick. It has clearly been optimised, which meant that getting from basket to delivery was a slick process.
  • Good in-line validation cues – hurrah for form design.
  • Assuming my billing and delivery address was the same meant that I didn’t have to re-enter it and could get my table by tomorrow afternoon!
 Unfortunately, there was also some bad that spawned multiple frustrations:
  • The cues may have been good, but the in-line validation was slow and didn’t give me feedback until I’d nearly navigated away from the page.
  • Floating pop-ups were a bit orphan-like – please align yourself to a field.
  • Buttons had weird click zones – Add Delivery was only clickable in the bottom 50 per cent of the button.
  • As an online customer, the last thing I need is a large, disruptive Next Directory advert. Paper? No chance! In fact, it was a hideous obstruction. Please remove it immediately. 

Now, to be fair, finding the table, falling in love and getting to delivery took me about three minutes (once I decide, I decide), so I was fairly happy at this stage. The critical fail came when I tried to get the table delivered to my chosen location. 

It was a Thursday night. I could get next day delivery to my home address, or in-store collection on Monday (what happened to weekends?). Given that I wouldn’t be home the next day and I did want the table in time for the weekend, I decided to get it delivered to work. Imagine my annoyance (although not surprise), when delivery couldn’t take place earlier than the following Wednesday? I work just off Oxford Street and the nearest store is about a five-minute walk. It’s not a Next Home store, but hey, getting an item delivered there shouldn’t be a big deal, right? I exited the checkout soon after. I guess I didn’t love the table enough to wait. 

So, putting on my professional hat, I’d like to quickly deconstruct the issue and offer a potential business-friendly solution.

Online fulfilment and in-store stock systems at Next clearly don’t talk to each other. In fact, they don’t talk to each other at most retailers (other than maybe Argos and Apple). This is not an organisational fail. It’s the perennial challenge of trying to bring legacy stores in line with modern consumer expectations. Retail is now all about convenience. The winners both on and offline will be those who offer consumers the most flexibility and availability of product.

How do you do that when you have to keep a lid on costs? You may very well be losing sales and margin every day because your online business is just not as profitable as your in-store business used to be. Your budget for investment is nigh on nothing and all around you the press is slating your efforts, customers are complaining and the future is looking pretty bleak. I’m not saying this is Next’s position, they’re actually doing okay from what I gather. But many retailers are not.

Enter the solution hack.

It’s quite simple really – expose your in-store stock system to the internet so that a customer can separately see if the store of their choice has their item in stock. Not as part of Click & Collect, just as part of normal store stock.

It’s great to do the thinking and hard work on behalf of a customer. But what the lean revolution has taught many businesses is that simple solutions that give customers control generally work.

Let’s walk this scenario through:

  1. The site detects that the delivery date falls outside the next-day promise for my given address.
  2. The site offers me the option to check in-store stock.
  3. It automatically shows me the nearest store to my delivery location that looks like it has my item in-store.

The whole process is transparent and makes me the master of my universe. I’d like to call this hack 'Pop in-store rather than Click & Collect. Why? Because in the ideal world, it would be a guarantee that I'd be able to buy and get my item from that store tomorrow. However, even the non-ideal scenario is good because I’d know that the item is in the store in the first place. I can then make an informed choice about whether or not I want to go and get it myself, turning my annoyance into hope. Result! If I don’t manage to go in-store, nothing happens. The store still sells as usual and nobody loses.

Does this sound familiar? Well it should, it’s pretty much what Argos does! For a retailer that doesn’t do in-store merchandising, Argos’ online proposition has always been to show you how much stock is available in a local store. Now it shouldn’t be that hard for any other retailer to do the same thing, primarily because it wouldn’t be about connecting their online fulfilment and in-store stock management. It’s essentially providing online access to the separate in-store stock system. Should showing stock availability mean reserving it? Maybe, maybe not. Showing a “High stock/Low stock” indicator may be good enough in the first instance.

This addresses a final convenience gap for customers and provides the retailer with good reasons to promote in-store visits for customers unhappy with online delivery options.

Now let’s explore why some retailers won’t do this:

  • It could expose poor stock availability or distribution.
  • They may assume customers won’t use it as it doesn’t go far enough (watch out there, perfectionist).
  • It's not a priority for the e-commerce director, who is not incentivised to help in-store sales and has other problems to focus on fixing first.

The first point is a position of fear. Any business that chooses inaction due to poor stock issues may be in bigger trouble than they realise.

The key issue for the second is the assumption. Test and learn. If it doesn’t work then kill it. But if it does, then I shall look forward to my 10 per cent commission fee.

The final point is a BIG business issue. So long as there exists separate P&L for online vs in-store teams, there exist disincentives to collaborate. I consider this an inadvertent consequence. The e-commerce teams are often separate business units. Their great convenience innovation of Click & Collect has become a cost to stores, which need additional staff, separate desks and bigger stock rooms to hold all the stock, but often miss out on the sale attribution, as it is all paid for online. I can see why a store manager would be exceptionally grumpy.

Some companies are making customers pay for this by introducing fees for Click & Collect, asking the customer to essentially pay the store back for giving up space to all those pesky online orders they have to manage. I don’t see how charging customers to address an organisational design problem will lead to long-term success, but problems needs solving and maybe this is also a case of test and learn.

In reality, ultimate retail convenience is recognising that what customers want is what the business wants. Flexibility to shop online, in-store or both as the mood takes them. For retailers, now is the time to get creative with plugging gaps in the customer experience that fall below expectations.

Now back to my consumer hat and I don’t personally fancy a weekend trip to a retail park. I’m hoping I’ll feel strong enough to take a walk down Tottenham Court Road and pop into one of the furniture shops there on my way home from work one of these days. Sorry, Next, I think that may be a lost sale!

by Lola Oyelayo

Director of strategy and UX

A passionate UX designer and researcher, Lola has developed her skills in large organisations and digital agencies, delivering delightful digital products and services. A self-confessed perfectionist, Lola is extremely vocal and knowledgeable about user-centred design. This journey has seen her become Scrum Certified, an official member of the "Agile is best" club and spokesperson for Agile UX development in our agency.