Modern Retail

Dispelling the ‘free and fast’ eCommerce myth 

Free and fast

It’s easy to get caught up in the hyperbole regarding the meteoric rise of eCommerce. New audiences introduced to online shopping for the first time; a clear shift away from the high street and towards a digital-first mentality. 

But for thousands of independent online retailers and SMEs, the last 12 months have been a rollercoaster, not a procession. These retailers have endured a constant battle to maintain service provision, mitigate supply risks, manage inventory levels and stave off the threat of new market entrants, not to mention protecting their staff through a health crisis. It’s been a huge ask at a time of huge stress and disruption.

What’s more, for smaller retailers, future success is anything but guaranteed, and their situation is being made all the more difficult by the ‘Amazon effect’ – the notion that all eCommerce must now meet the dizzying standards of fulfilment convenience enabled by this retail behemoth.

Just recently Shopify became the latest marketplace to publish research citing customers’ seemingly implacable desire for improved delivery options. If you’re an online retailer, you could be forgiven for thinking that achieving eCommerce profitability under these conditions looks like a pretty thankless task.

So let’s take a step back for a second and try to unpack what customers actually want, versus what they’d be happy to see if it were possible. After all, in a perfect world, who wouldn’t enjoy free, instanteous, environmentally sustainable fulfilment to any location?

Free and fast?

In truth there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that free delivery matters more and more, but comparatively little to support claims that rapid delivery is now a pre-requisite of success.

‘Free’ matters because online shoppers don’t like encountering surprises at the checkout stage. So many online services suffer from this trick of the trade – the 11th hour introduction of an additional and unexpected fee. However, in the world of eCommerce it only takes a few clicks for a customer to move to another marketplace. Most retailers don’t have an absolutely unique offering – their products can be sourced elsewhere if a customer chooses to look for them. And there’s another good reason why offering free delivery matters: the algorithmic impact. Free delivery tends to make your products more visible in marketplace searches, and given the size of these marketplaces, independent retailers just can’t afford to be demoted in the search rankings.

On the other hand, ‘fast’ delivery tends to matter only if a customer is buying something urgent. For example, a replacement router or piece of computer kit might fall into this category. But when you think about it, surprisingly few products meet this criteria. Either we can wait 24-48 hours for them to arrive, or else we need them instantly and hence are more likely to go out to our nearest high street.

At Huboo, our research shows that just 14% of people expect products to show up within 48 hours, while the majority of online shoppers are perfectly content with delivery times of 2-3 days, so long as they don’t have to pay the costs of delivery. Speed is simply not seen as a unique selling point, especially if consumers are footing the bill. And for all of the recent retail innovations we’ve seen, same-day delivery remains extremely expensive. 

Consistency and reliability matter more than speed

In contrast, a lot of items rely upon consistency of delivery. Our monthly subscription for toilet paper or cat food isn’t urgent, up until the point at which the delivery fails to arrive when expected.

Every online retailer needs to consider the question of ‘guaranteed or expected’ in relation to their product offering, particularly if they’re in the subscriptions business, where a failure to provide consistency will almost certainly result in a lost customer. 

Visibility also matters more and more to customers – the ability to track an item throughout the fulfilment process, giving them the reassurance that it is coming, and ensuring they’re at home when it arrives. 

A more strategic approach to delivery

Online retail margins are smaller than people think, particularly once marketplace or customer acquisition costs are accounted for. And right now there’s a danger that the ‘Amazon effect’ is giving retailers a false impression of what their customers really value around last mile delivery. 

So before you rush into offering free and fast delivery that you can’t necessarily afford, take a moment to first think carefully about your product set and audience needs, and you’ll be a step closer to a delivery strategy that works for everyone.

By Martin Bysh, CEO of Huboo, a UK-headquartered fulfilment technology provider committed to extending best-in-class, affordable fulfilment to retailers of all sizes, eCommerce providers and D2C brands. 

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Martin Bysh

Martin has decades of experience in development, tech and entrepreneurship. He began as a computer games programmer, publishing his first game (a chart hit) at age 16. After a career in games development, in 2001, he launched one of the UK's first online dating sites which he later sold. Eight years on, Martin targeted advertising and co-registration revenues to form a Freemium dating site with B2B revenues. It reached Hitwise's top five sites before the company sold in 2012 to Europe’s then-largest independent dating company.

Transitioning into B2B led Martin to eclipse Google Consumer Surveys in the founding of the fastest market research platform in the world, before selling the company to a PE-backed market research group, and then co-founded Enthuse.com, a payment and fundraising company currently servicing over 4500 charities. He is also a regular speaker at events including Internet World, White Label Expo and The Institute of Fundraising among others.

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