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Eight ways to improve e-commerce order fulfillment

8 techniques to beef up e-commerce order achievement

E-commerce has been around long enough that many of us can barely remember what it was like before we could order products online and have them show up a couple days later. Those of us can think that far back, we certainly remember the days of paper catalog sales, mailing order forms and waiting six to eight weeks for the package to arrive.

But as e-commerce continues to grow and have an outsized influence on seasonal shopping periods, such as back to school and the winter holiday shopping season, it’s more important than ever that retailers continue to improve their e-commerce order fulfillment. It’s not just a part of your sales. For some retailers, it can be as much as half of their total revenue.

Here are eight ways to improve your e-commerce order fulfillment.

1. Assess your item details and product pages.

Do you have all the available product details, photos and inventory? Customers want to know as much about a product as they can find, since when they go in the store they have the opportunity to see and feel the things they buy. They’re placing an awful lot of trust in you by buying something they can’t see. So give them more item details and product information than they ask for. It’s better to have too many than not enough – it helps consumers have confidence in making a purchase from you.

Also, it’s a good idea to make sure your inventory information is indicated on the e-commerce website and is correct, perhaps down to the local store level. When people see you have a certain item on your website, they’re trusting you to have it in stock and will send it to them. They don’t want to get to the store to pick up their BOPUS order just to find out their order isn’t complete. They don’t want to receive an email days after they place their order informing them that the item is on backorder. That’s a quick way to lose a sale and a long-term customer.

2. Check your inventory accuracy.

Even if you’re not listing exact inventory on your website, or if you’re using drop ship suppliers, make sure you have up-to-date inventory information. Set a threshold for reorders when you reach a certain number of units remaining so you never run out. If you find you’re going to have problems getting enough inventory, use a retail community network and catalog assortment solution to find new suppliers.

Additionally, be aware if your suppliers are going to have any problems fulfilling your orders. An EDI solution can offer inventory visibility, fast communication and a method for fast onboarding of new vendors and products when needed. Using the EDI 855 document known as the purchase order acknowledgement (POA) can be an extremely useful tool in inventory accuracy. You can be notified quickly if a supplier has an issue filling your full order, which gives you the opportunity to find a new supplier to deliver the shortfall by the time you need it.

3. Do you have drop ship or other fulfillment capabilities?

Many retailers are moving to a supplier-based fulfillment model, where they’re asking their suppliers to fulfill the e-commerce orders on the retailer’s behalf. This saves the industry countless millions in warehousing, shipping, storage and staffing. Rather, the original suppliers or even third party distributors are fulfilling orders using their retailer customers’ paperwork and packaging, so consumers never know the difference.

On the other hand, many retailers are still fulfilling orders directly from their retail warehouses or even shipping from their retail stores. These count toward their total sales, and it helps them maximize inventory efficiency. This way, the retailer gets the full retail price, they make their margins and they’re able to add to their bottom line with a new sales channel. Additionally, this also contributes to the experience for the end consumer, because they’re likely to get their orders faster.

4. Do you have inventory visibility?

Retailers who rely on suppliers to provide their drop shipping need to keep a close eye on the available inventory, especially if that supplier is also working with other retailers. It’s important to have true inventory visibility so you can see what kind of inventory numbers are available to you.

If you’re a supplier and you’re sharing that number with a retailer, they’re counting on you to provide the most up-to-date information. Make sure you’re able to provide it as often as they need it. This means regular updates to your own system, as well as the ability to share that with your retailers’ e-commerce sites and systems.

Cloud-based solutions make it easy for retailers and suppliers to collaborate and share inventory and sales information with each other.

5. How well do you communicate with your customers?

People who order from Amazon are often overwhelmed with communication with each handoff of the package. There are notices for when your order has been received, when it’s scheduled for shipment, when it actually ships, when it’s expected to arrive and finally, when it actually arrives.

It may seem like a lot, but it’s certainly better than not hearing a word from an online retailer unless there’s a problem with your order. Retailers like receiving advanced shipping notifications of their inventory, and so do your customers. Find ways to communicate with them throughout the ordering and shipping process.

6. Do you offer 2-day shipping?

Amazon has certainly spoiled us with its two-day, one-day, and even same day shipping. While consumers don’t expect these level of services from all e-commerce providers, it is becoming a more popular choice. Delivery times can be a significant factor in consumer decision-making for an online order. So there are a few ways to do it.

  1. Offer two-day shipping through UPS or Fedex for an extra fee.
  2. Work with drop shippers that can provide that capability. (Or be a drop shipper that can.)
  3. Fulfill orders from the retail store nearest your customers.
  4. Open distribution centers and warehouses in parts of the country that get a lot of orders.

Perhaps you can’t quite get to two day shipping because it will be cost-prohibited, either for you or for your customer. That can be okay, as long as the delivery options available can deliver within three to five days, your e-commerce order fulfillment is flawless, timing impeccable, and you maintain the line of communication with your customer about where the package is enroute.

7. How smooth is your returns policy?

Where do people return their online orders? Can they take them back to the store, or do they have to return ship it to the warehouse? If you use a drop shipper, does it go back to the shipper or does it get returned to your own returns warehouse? Establishing, evaluating and streamlining these processes will help you avoid a lot of confusion and customer angst later.

It’s also important to establish a returns policy that favors the customer and makes their life easier. If it’s too complicated, they may not return the product, but they won’t buy anymore either. Make it simple –include return shipment labels with the order, spring for free returns and whenever you can, allow customers to return online orders to brick-and-mortar stores.

8. Train your staff thoroughly.

Finally, it’s important that you have thorough staff training that covers as much as possible about what they’ll encounter in the course of their work and what is required of them. Training is important after the new employee is hired, but it’s also valuable to have refresher training sessions and even re-training for when new technology or processes are introduced. Everyone who has an impact on the order needs to know what is expected, from the warehouse inventory recover, pickers and packers, shipping specialists, in-store clerks and customer service representatives fielding phone calls and emails from customers.

Remember, these are the people who have your customers’ satisfaction literally in their hands. If they’re not getting things right, you’ll have a lot of apologizing to angry customers to do, returns to pay for, and even comped items to give away or write off.

This is just a jumping off point for evaluating your e-commerce performance and improving it. As you’re going through, reviewing you e-commerce efficiency, you may come across areas of improvement specific to your organization. Perhaps some of your operations could be even more enhanced if your trading partners were also evaluating and refining their link the supply chain. Every little bit of incremental improvement within your organization and your trading partners is another step towards meeting and exceeding your customers’ e-commerce expectations.

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