Some 75 years ago, Albert Einstein posited, "Within every crisis lies great opportunity." Fast-forward to today, and the axiom still holds true – perhaps more than ever. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly provided us a crisis. The burden is now upon all of retail to identify – and capitalize on – those opportunities.
No easy task, to be sure, especially when public health, vitriolic politics and culture wars are all in the mix.
However, after three long months of wildly disparate experiences in ordering groceries, home goods, apparel and gardening supplies without once stepping foot inside a physical store, I can say with complete confidence that the "new" last mile of the customer journey is positively rife with opportunity. Regardless of how orders are fulfilled – whether they are delivered from the store, shipped from the warehouse or picked up curbside – there are numerous legitimate, tangible and attainable opportunities to not only improve the experience, but differentiate the experience.
In fact, the opportunities for innovation and improvement are so widespread that I might suggest that many last-mile experiences as they exist today represent actual crises in and of themselves.
I don't need to bore you with all the ugly details from the last miles of my recent shopping journeys, but there have been a few particularly notorious incidents that jump to mind that will help illustrate the opportunities waiting to be addressed:
Throughout these trying experiences, a couple things jumped out to me as obvious opportunities to improve these experiences. And the good news is that both of them, in addition to being obvious, are also entirely achievable:
1. Communicate more often and more clearly. Looking beyond how it is possible that orders can just completely disappear, I am more interested in how it is possible that they can disappear with absolutely no customer communication. Literally hours went by from the time that shopping was complete until the time I was alerted that my orders had been cancelled (yes, cancelled – not automatically scheduled to be reshopped).
When it comes to curbside pickup, I think it's safe to assume that many people taking advantage of curbside are safety-conscious people who would rather minimize (or avoid) any interactions with people. And if that is indeed the case, they definitely do not want any delays or misunderstandings in the process. They want easy, efficient and expedited "handoffs" with minimal contact.
Consistent, concise and clear communications are critical to eliminating confusion and delays throughout the journey. If my experiences are any barometer, there are plenty of opportunities for retailers in all verticals to communicate more effectively and provide better delivery experiences, and better experiences at the curb.
2. Get in the field and test. Then test again. I know we are moving fast – really fast. Especially for retail. We love to analyze, observe, design, pilot, revise, and then roll out new processes and new technologies. But the pandemic has forced us to move much faster than we like. Which, on the whole, is probably a good thing. But as we proceed, we simply can't neglect to test our new processes in the field.
I can tell that many retailers have been caught off guard by subtle (but not insignificant) differences in store configurations. Every store situation is unique, and one-size-fits-all processes simply don't exist. My curbside experiences with a local grocery chain were evidence of the big impact that small differences in store configurations can make.
The first time I tried curbside with this grocer, I had a great experience throughout the browsing, buying and shopping journey…right up to the minute I pulled into the parking lot. That's when things went south in a hurry. They had reserved two spaces for curbside pickup, which, based on their scheduling algorithm, was probably enough. However, the two spaces they selected were in the busiest area of their parking lot. People were absolutely swarming all around me as I waited for my order to arrive. When I opened my window to confirm my order with the store associate, two people walked right beside us, well inside the six-foot social distancing boundary. It was unsettling and uncomfortable, to say the least.
The second time I shopped the same grocer, I decided to try a different store location. It was a little farther from home, but also with a bigger parking lot with fewer neighboring businesses. Sure enough, there were the same two spaces reserved for pickup, but they were a couple aisles farther from the store entrance and well away from the crowds. No people, no problem.
The same process yielded two very different customer outcomes. The lesson? Take your processes to the field and test them in the field. And once you have tested, establish feedback channels for your customers and your stores to alert you when conditions change or processes break down (back to point #1 regarding communication).
Then (and Only Then), Seek Out Ways to Surprise and Delight
While mastering the basics of efficient and effective process execution is critical to delivering last-mile experiences that satisfy, once you have mastered the basics, you can turn your attention to opportunities to surprise – and, yes, to delight – your shoppers.
Because therein lies a legit opportunity to truly differentiate. While many retailers are clearly struggling to deliver last-mile experiences that are just barely "good enough," those who think bigger can deliver experiences that drive return visits, loyalty, word of mouth and, yes, even incremental revenue.
Already we are seeing some very creative and interesting examples of retailers large and small innovating and investing in the new last mile, to great effect with shoppers:
These are but a few ideas that I hope will inspire you to consider the new last mile of your customer journeys. Because if we can execute, communicate, surprise and delight, I believe we have a real shot at crossing the finish line first.