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When Online Shopping Goes Wrong

In the age of Amazon, shoppers have little patience. Here’s how retailers are using personal service — and the occasional free dog toy — to retain customers when the worst happens.
Source: Shutterstock
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — When Tu Anh Tran, a student in Finland, ordered a velour tracksuit from Juicy Couture's website on Black Friday, she assumed she'd be wearing it by Christmas morning.

Instead, her order didn’t arrive until March. Tran called Juicy at least half a dozen times for updates on her order, as well as a promised refund that never fully materialized. She estimates she racked up at least 50 euros ($61) in international telephone charges, much of it spent on hold to the company’s customer service line.

A representative for Juicy Couture did not respond to request for comment. But the brand’s website says it partners with cross-border e-commerce company Borderfree on international shipping, and that European orders should take 5 to 15 business days to arrive. It encourages international shoppers to make contact via e-mail.

Social media abounds with e-commerce customer service horror stories like Tran’s. Orders never arrive, or the wrong item is delivered. Sellers take days to respond to emails. Refunds don’t go through. About 5 percent of U.S. online orders fail to reach their destination on the first try, according to PCA Predicts, a data technology company.

Retailers are paying a steeper price for these snafus now that Amazon offers free same-day and one-day delivery in more than 8,000 cities to members of its Prime subscription program, often backing up its policy with no-questions-asked refunds. Shoppers now expect fast and free shipping and are quick to jump to a competitor if something goes wrong. Roughly half of customers won't buy from a retailer again after a negative shipping experience, according to a June 2017 report from Temando, an American shipping and fulfillment software platform.

Mishaps are unavoidable for everyone, including Amazon, which works with delivery partners and its own shipment network. Snowstorms delays arrivals, packages get stolen off of stoops, orders are processed incorrectly. So brands are getting creative with their customer service to hold onto disgruntled shoppers.

Things that a couple of years ago were considered a treat online are now just expected from everybody.

“Between the order and when they open the packages, they associate everything that happened with the brand that they ordered from,” says Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founder of e-commerce jewellery brand BaubleBar, which has a four-star rating out of five on the online review platform Trustpilot. “Things that a couple of years ago were considered a treat online are now just expected from everybody.”

Digital eyewear brand Warby Parker used to compare its turnaround on orders to the speed — or lack therof— of the local optometrist’s office, says co-founder and co-chief executive Dave Gilboa. Now, many shoppers expect Amazon Prime-levels of delivery speed. That sets a high bar when eyeglasses often require customization and a doctor’s approval, Gilboa says.

To shorten order lead-time, the company opened a manufacturing facility in Sloatsburg, NY in 2017 where lenses are cut and fit. Warby Parker also tempers customers’ expectations. Shoppers are told orders will take 7 to 10 days to arrive, even though shipping times are usually shorter. The company also has a four-star rating on Trustpilot.

“Happiness is reality minus expectations,” says Gilboa.

At Baublebar, Yacobovsky and her co-founder Amy Jain place test orders with shipping partners, which include UPS, USPS and DHL, to see how quickly orders arrive and how the packaging looks. The company has learned from past mistakes. Customers were given a wider delivery window over the holidays in 2015, after a snowstorm delayed hundreds of thousands of orders the year before.

For trickier issues, brands are manning their phones and inboxes with full-time customer service representatives — bucking the trend in the age of automated operators and outsourced call centers.

At Farfetch, the luxury fashion marketplace that connects consumers with a global network of boutiques and previously faced its own early challenges with fulfillment and customer service, shoppers can call, email or WeChat representatives in nine countries and in any of 13 languages, says Su Ahn, vice president of customer excellence. They are trained to handle issues ranging from styling advice to inventory queries and already know if a snowstorm is delaying orders before customers call.

“That is a huge part of our secret sauce,” she says. “We have the local footprint.”

Warby Parker’s “customer experience” team is its second-largest, after store associates. To speed up the process, employees are trained to come up with their own solutions to many complex problems, Gilboa says. That can lead to creative ideas that win customer loyalty. For example, if a shopper’s dog mangles a pair of glasses, the Warby Parker team has been known to send a custom dog toy with a replacement.

Individually tailored solutions help smaller retailers stand out from the crowd.

I think everyone can dish out discounts and promo codes and coupons and credits — it's the easier option.

“Brands have a really big opportunity to recognize that their ability to humanize the customer experience, and make things right, goes significantly above and beyond what a lot of these other large companies are doing,” says Yacobovsky.

Baublebar’s team of about ten customer service specialists sets up times to chat with customers at their convenience, and are doing more video chats to show products. To attract talent to those positions, Baublebar often hires employees out of school, and then promotes them to other departments.

When all else fails, online retailers shower disgruntled customers with gifts to win back their loyalty.

Baublebar, for example, offers loyalty points or free expedited shipping on future orders. Or if an order is delayed, the company might send another by overnight mail and ask the customer to return the first order after they receive it. Yacobovsky says the money spent on shipping in such cases “pales in comparison” to the money the company would spend on advertising to win back a customer.

At Farfetch, where luxury customers are less concerned with discounts, upset customers are sometimes sent directly to Ahn. She says she calls them at their convenience, even if it is in the middle of the night for her.

If an item is sold out throughout its network of retailers, the Farfetch team sources it elsewhere on the internet. If it isn’t the right size, they can provide a seamstress. If it isn’t the same style, they can provide alternatives.

“I think everyone can dish out discounts and promo codes and coupons and credits — it’s the easier option,” says Ahn. “What I tell my team is to give them a lot more of your time and effort…. All customers want to know that someone cares about them.”

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