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What Worked and What Didn’t in Peak 2023: Evaluate These 11 Key Areas

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The retail peak season is entering its final phase for the year; now is the time to start asking some key questions: What worked? What didn’t?
wrapped holiday packages sitting on a desk in the back of the shipping room

The retail peak season is entering its final phase for the year; now is the time to start asking some key questions: What worked? What didn’t? What surprised you the most? Where were you least prepared? Perhaps, most importantly, what needs to change for 2024?

Planning for peak season is a continuous cycle of learning, improvement, and optimization. It’s as important to consider what needs to end as what needs to begin. As you start taking stock of Peak 2023, here are some key areas to evaluate:

  1. Customer satisfaction. How are your NPS and CSAT scores tracking? Aside from formal scoring, have a look at your social media accounts and talk to Customer Service. What are/were the key complaints and issues customers presented? What were areas of praise? In addition, compare your sales rates with your return rates. Measuring customer satisfaction can be tricky during the busy peak season; but gauging it is important to understand where you did well and where you need to improve. Remember, everything you do must improve the customer experience.

  2. Omnichannel. How seamless was it? Were customers able to move across channels without disrupting their experience? Mobile devices edged out desktops this season as the most popular way to shop online; how did your app perform? As you evaluate the entire buyer’s journey, were there any areas that created snags? Missing data? Systems that were not adequately integrated to share customer data? Remember, the omnichannel experience extends beyond customers to your supply chain, third-party logistic (3PL) partners, and transportation and delivery partners. What was their experience? Evaluate underutilized components of your omnichannel strategy: social media apps that saw little traffic, support channels that were not used much, etc. What can you eliminate so you can focus on what is truly desired and working?

  3. Order fulfillment. All throughout the year, order fulfillment carries the lion’s share of the customer experience. Were you able to fulfill orders, at scale, on time, and get them out the distribution center door to make delivery deadlines? How did your order fulfillment operations go? Was it calm-in-the-storm or chaotic? What didn’t work? Take a look at your packaging options. Was there waste or efficiency in the haste? What processes caused bottlenecks and how did employees overcome them? If you were working with a 3PL, be sure to schedule a debrief with them post-holiday to explore what their experience was and to understand how to symbiotically move forward. As a 3PL, Radial conducts post-peak interviews with clients to evaluate and assess our performance and to fine tune our services. You should expect this from any 3PL that takes a true partnership approach.

  4. Shipping & delivery. What shipping methods did your customers choose? If you charged for shipping and offered free shipping via other incentives (like additional spend or a rewards program), was there a corresponding increase in usage of those? Likewise, if you eliminated free shipping, was there a rise in store pickup? Evaluate how your shipping policies were received. Talk to your carriers. Were packages delivered on time? What parts of the order fulfillment process supported their success and what hindered it? Delivery is typically out of the retailer’s control, but customers still hold you accountable for getting their orders on time. Where can you improve your relationship with your carriers? Dive into the shipping and delivery options you offer customers and have a discussion about mutual goals of on-time delivery, reducing the number of trips carriers need to make, packaging, store fulfillment and micro-distribution center options, and the impact on the environment.

  5. Inventory visibility and availability. A successful peak depends on product availability and visibility to everyone in the supply chain — including customers. All things being equal (and across many major retailers they pretty much are), customers will purchase from the retailer that has the product available and offers right pricing and shipping options. Having the right inventory in stock for peak requires data-driven forecasting. While there are always those products that become viral hits and sell out, for the most part retailers that use predictive analytics based on historical and real-time data have the best ability to match item availability to demand. Real-time inventory visibility is crucial for a smooth, scalable peak season.

  6. Payments & fraud. With a record-breaking Cyber Week, we saw an increase in Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) usage as customers stretched their budgets. We also saw a 12% increase in fraud during those five days, compared to other shopping days in 2023. How well did your payment processing work? Were there payment methods that were underutilized and could be eliminated? What was your false decline rate and the corresponding loss of valid customers to those errors? Did your fraud prevention enable fast authentication and transactions? It will take a discussion with your payments and fraud team and vendors to get the full picture, but payments and fraud is a key part of a smooth, omnichannel customer experience. If you partnered with a provider, like Radial, that provides full-service payments and fraud management and indemnification, find out from their network analysis how you compared to others in your competitive market. What needs to change? What can you stop doing?

  7. Returns processing. Return rates speak to the success or failure of your overall omnichannel experience. A well-done omnichannel eCommerce strategy will ensure that customers have the maximum data to make a well-informed purchase decision, and will feature accurate order fulfillment. The likelihood of the product being a good match to the customer’s expectations will be high. High return rates during peak also reflects mis-matches in people’s gift-giving choices — but for the most part, your return rates will tell you helpful information about how everything else is going. If you’re charging for returns, how did that impact it? Talk to customer service to learn about customer sentiment. Look at the returns management operation itself, too. Where can it be improved? If you’re partnering with a 3PL like Radial, discuss how they will manage scaling returns and where they are driving efficiencies through automation.

  8. Customer service. What were the most common issues and needs? Did your contact centers end up fielding FAQs that should be automated with virtual agents to lift that load? How were your staffing levels during peak? What processes put extra strain on agents and how can that be improved? What were the average response time, average handle times, and first time resolution rates? If you’ve implemented AI automation, did customers truly find it helpful and convenient or is that an assumption you’ve made? How easily could a customer get to a human agent if they wanted to? Radial offers customer care support for eCommerce businesses and can scale as needed during busy times. Do you have the customer service expertise you need internally or should you consider partnering with a provider?

  9. Scalability. Any time volume changes, scalability becomes a critical factor. In retail, this capacity spreads across every department from store associates, to order fulfillment, to shipping, to returns processing, to customer service. How easily and reliably can you scale? Is there automation and technology that could support this? Conversely, where might technology be getting in your way? What roles do you struggle to hire during peak times? Would it make sense to partner with a provider, like Radial, that offers a comprehensive all-in-one solution for retailers?

  10. Communication. How well did communication happen across teams, vendors, partners, suppliers, with employees and customers? From advertising and marketing, to keeping everyone on the same page when products were going to be on sale, to a continual dialogue with the supply chain and logistics partners about inventory, orders, returns, etc. What could have been communicated more clearly? Who was left out of the loop? How much advance notice would have been useful? A robust communication strategy is essential with so many moving parts in the eCommerce space. Keeping everyone advised and updated, using language that is calm and respectful (everyone is stressed!) is imperative to peak success.

  11. Employee satisfaction. Your success depends on this. Employees are your greatest asset. They provide the human touch that is becoming increasingly rare in our artificial world. Your people are essential to customer relationships and loyalty. No customer feels warmly greeted by an AI bot, no matter how polite the bot has been taught to be. But that associate on the phone or in the store that smiles and lends an empathetic ear, that goes out of their way to be helpful or kind — people remember that. They are loyal to those experiences. Talk to your employees and the people across the entire ecosystem and learn what is working to support their success and what needs to change. Remind them of their value and their worth.

A thorough evaluation of your peak season will glean ample insights that can set the stage for positive change. Now is the time to start gathering data and noticing how things are going. Once things have quieted down, complete a more formal assessment; for now, start thinking about what questions to ask and begin gathering responses. 

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