Roundtable: Retailers set for particularly challenging peak in 2019

Retailers are planning for Christmas 2019 now – it’s such a vital period. Retail Gazette and iAdvize co-hosted a breakfast looking back at 2018 peak, assessing product return rates and the need for more service in ecommerce.


Peak trading period 2019 promises to be one of the most challenging yet thanks to a shorter time period between Black Friday weekend – which is increasingly the time consumers start their festive shopping – and Christmas Day itself.

That is the view of Bruce Harryman, senior manager for national distribution network planning at department store chain John Lewis, who made the claim during The Delivery Conference event in February.

Speaking at the London event on February 26, which was hosted by ecommerce delivery software business Metapack, Harryman said Christmas is “already looming” and with Black Friday 2019 coming six days later than last year, peak trading will be squeezed, meaning retailers will likely have fresh challenges around service and delivery.

“We all know Black Friday is massive – it’s roughly 11 times the smallest day for John Lewis in terms of online and units sold,” Harryman explained.

“Customers traditionally started shopping after the schools went back from half term at the end of October, but now it delays until the Black Friday period. Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve that’s when we’re seeing significant growth.”

He added: “When you shorten that this year by six days, that could be pretty challenging. I’m praying it doesn’t snow.”

These comments were made on the same day Retail Gazette teamed up with conversational marketing platform iAdvize to host a breakfast roundtable with a host of retailers and brands. The focus of the event was looking back on Christmas 2018, and working out ways to improve peak trading in 2019.

John Lewis’s Harryman was not present at the event, but representatives from Arcadia, EE, Fortnum & Mason, Mango, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose all identified with his view that being prepared for 2019 peak period is of paramount concern.

Online customer service is key

Retailers around the table discussed how they have been increasingly looking to blend their online and physical retailing propositions, with Christmas a particularly crucial time for each part of their businesses to be working in harmony.

Core topics discussed during the two-hour session included the need to use stores for online returns, and the requirement for shops – especially in grocery – to provide a “hotel reception-like” environment at Christmas, where shoppers are given straightforward click & collect pickup points, and coffee while they wait for their items.

There was a general agreement from those around the table that many retailers have implemented digitally-influenced elements within their stores, and an acknowledgement that there are perhaps gaps the other way around.

Old-fashioned, personalised, human customer service, which retailers on high streets and in shopping malls across the UK have built their reputations on over the years, can often get lost when shopping online. The delegates discussed the different methods companies have used to bridge this gap, including creating direct lines of communication between online shopper and handheld devices operated by shop floor staff.

“In theory, it’s a great concept,” explained one participant in the roundtable, “but in-store customers in some of the retailers that have used it just see a member of staff on a mobile phone and can feel ignored.”

There are a range of retailers, including Harvey Nichols, Levi’s, and Heal’s using technology of this nature, seemingly to good effect, but another roundtabler explained that the high turnover of retail staff provides a barrier to creating long-term relationships between on-the-floor experts in a store and online shoppers.

A central topic of conversation, however, was the issue of returns at Christmas. It appears to be an issue impacting retailers of all types.

Returns and what constitutes real revenue?

At a previous Retail Gazette event, one fashion retailer revealed that approximately 45 per cent of the items it had sold in the period between Black Friday and Christmas were expected to end up returned by customers.

Whatever statistics one considers about the growth of online returns in retail, this one example is a sobering figure for any business thinking about counting their earnings in the immediate aftermath of a sale. A sale isn’t always a sale, it seems.

Those attending Retail Gazette’s event acknowledged that rising product returns can be an expensive and complex issue to manage, but there was an acceptance among those in the room that it is “just part of retail” – especially in fashion.

Potential solutions offered by the retailers to prevent the issue from becoming too big a burden for the sector included establishing automatic refunds for customers, placing drop boxes in store for self-service returns, and monitoring serial returners’ activity.

That final point is something Amazon and Asos have admitted they are starting to do, with reports last year that the former has banned people it felt had returned too many orders without reasonable justification.

One retailer at the event said data related to serial returners “becomes obvious” when looked at by businesses, but the internal resources required to mine for and then utilise that information presents a significant challenge.

For iAdvize, one solution to avoiding retailers being overburdened with returned products is to get the sale right in the first place by ensuring the customer gets great customer service at the point of purchase – whether they are online or in a store.

Online fit tools and better imagery and videos can aid this process, according to the retailers in the room, but iAdvize has a solution for businesses that connects online shoppers to a pool of brand, product or sector experts when required.

Fran Langham, head of marketing in the UK for iAdvize, said: “Whether its sports enthusiasts, travellers, wine connoisseurs, or fashionistas, our ibbü solution gives our retail partners a chance to tap into an array of knowledge to help serve their shoppers.

“Brands benefit from this expertise by connecting savvy enthusiasts with online shoppers, while the experts themselves receive financial compensation for sharing their tips in real-time. This is a great way of improving the online customer experience, and helping reduce the number of items retailers have to deal with coming back into their operations due to getting the product wrong in the first place.”

She added: “As retailers and brands prepare their processes and systems for what looks like being a particularly challenging peak period in the final quarter of 2019, they should consider bringing expert voices to the table at the point of purchase online.”

Click here to sign up to Retail Gazette‘s free daily email newsletter


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here