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Retail's New Last Mile: Opportunities to Differentiate Revealed During the Pandemic

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.

Infamous Incidents

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:

  • Multiple store delivery orders were mysteriously and inexplicably cancelled after they had been shopped, resulting in hours of radio-silence delays as well as several items selling out between the time of the initial shopping attempt and the second shop.
  • Another store delivery order (for groceries) took more than three hours from the time the shop was started until the order arrived at my house, just six miles from the store. None of the frozen items had been stored properly, and thus all of the frozen items had thawed and had to be reshopped and redelivered several hours later than originally promised.
  • An online order for a T-shirt to be shipped to my home arrived two weeks later than promised, with no updates during the delays…and when it arrived, I found that they had shipped me a women's shirt. As you might expect, it was two sizes too small (at least), with a lovely scoop neck.
  • Two of my curbside pickup orders were short on detailed pickup instructions and long on delays, confusion and, worst of all to me, crowded parking lots full of other shoppers walking past without adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Obvious Opportunities

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:

  • Target in the U.S. has absolutely nailed curbside pickup. The experience they deliver would make a finicky Nordstrom shopper happy. Instructions are easy to follow and they are everywhere. Communication is consistent throughout the entire process. Integrated location tracking alerts the store as you approach, and in my experience, an associate has been waiting for me in the parking lot with my order as I pulled into a reserved space. While there are no great surprises there, the flawless and seamless execution made for an experience that was nothing short of delightful.
  • Local London fishmonger Notting Hill Fish Shop took a decidedly low-tech approach to social distancing regulations: Rather than having markers or stickers on the sidewalk to mark two meters of separation, they put out folding chairs to let people sit and socialize while they waited in line. Shoppers have taken to the idea, and fallen in love with the ability to socialize while social distancing. Low effort, low tech, but lots of surprise, and lots of delight, apparently.
  • Hatch, a maternity wear retailer with stores in Los Angeles and New York, is experimenting with shortening that last "mile" by opening a pop-up shop in the Hamptons exclusively dedicated to curbside pickup. Taking the cost of shipping and the long trek into the city out of that last mile is sure to delight many "moms to be."
  • In response to reports from heath officials that the coronavirus is less easily spread outdoors, DTC apparel brand Threads & Co opened a pop-up shop in a Minneapolis parking lot. The entire experience is completely outdoors, with plenty of social distancing built into the experience. They even require shoppers to RSVP their interest to elegantly limit the number of people in the "shop" at any one time. So, despite the decidedly mundane aesthetics of a parking lot, they have managed to craft a sense of exclusivity combined with a safe shopping experience that delights their loyal customer base.

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.