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Social media - ignore it at your peril

From Opinion column issue 64 – Autumn 2012

There’s a new democracy at large, and one could be forgiven for sometimes thinking it’s the democracy of the loudest voice – or at least of the most vociferous grumbler.

What else are we to make of the many threads of complaint about home deliveries that litter the internet and the Twittersphere? Spend an hour reading some of these and you could easily start to believe UK carriers were innately incapable of completing a single delivery effectively.

But you’d be wrong. Admittedly, more than ten per cent of home deliveries fail at the first attempt, according to a new IMRG; but that means about 90 per cent are succeeding. How many of these do we hear about on the internet?

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Tell it like it is!

From Editor's Rant column issue 63 – Summer 2012

With issue 63 of F&E magazine (summer 2012) we published our annual Fulfilment Guide. Many companies in it submit updated details every year (hooray!), but a lot of others don’t. However, we check details as diligently as we can.

That can involve looking at a lot of web sites. Many are great, but what a lot of oddities surface. Why, for instance, do so many contact pages that we bookmarked last year no longer work? Fair enough, sites get updated, but it’s elementary to forward defunct but popular pages to their new location. Why don’t webmasters bother?

And why do a surprising number of sites avoid publishing the street address of the company behind them? The information is in the public domain, but some companies seem to have a paranoia about mentioning it – as if it opens them to some sort of threat. What?

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I want it now - definitely. And free.

From Opinion column issue 63 – Summer 2012

Whatever you thought you knew about home delivery, you’d better think again. That’s the message we’re picking up here at F&E magazine.

Thought next-day delivery was just the home shopper’s way of getting a day-definite delivery? Not necessarily. There’s anecdotal evidence that when people say "I want it now" (or at least tomorrow), they really mean it. Shoppers simply don’t want to wait.

Thought shoppers would be happy to pay extra for an assured delivery? Well, yes and no. ByBox has concluded (after years of experimentation) that the way to encourage people to use its box-bank drop-off system is to charge less for it, not more.

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You could be nice about it

From Editor's Rant column issue 62 – Early spring 2012

A heart-stopping frenzy of buzzing on the entry phone, lasting at least ten seconds. A curt, almost angry announcement on the intercom: "Delivery." A frantic scrabble down six flights of stairs from our top flat. The delivery man on the doorstep with parcel under his arm, an impatient look on his face and a battered-looking handheld terminal already thrust forward.

My unrecognisable signature on the recessed, microscopic screen, which is barely accessible anyway between the steeply chamfered sides of the bezel. "Sorry, that doesn’t look much like …"

"What’s your surname?"

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Beware the king's new clothes

From Opinion column issue 62 – Early spring 2012

You can almost hear the sigh of relief sweeping through the retail business. Shoppers love click and collect! The high street is saved! Footfall is coming back! The e-commerce nightmare is over.

Well, if you believe that, you’re missing a fundamental point. People like buying goods online, whether on their computer, their iPad or their phone. That’s the bottom line. Home shopping is here to stay.

Getting those goods into people’s hands is an essential element – but a separate element. Some people clearly like picking up their goods in stores. The shopping experience is still an important part of their lives, and click and collect adds a valuable extra dimension to it.

But a lot of others are using click and collect because they’ve realised it’s the only sure way of getting their goods. You’ve failed them with every other delivery method, and this is their last resort.

To celebrate the success of click and collect with this large group of customers is to gloat over bludgeoning them into doing things your way. They might go along with it, but they’ll do it resentfully.

The latest IMRG survey says it all. Four out of five online shoppers rank home delivery as their first choice. Keep that figure in mind.

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We live in a flat - Part 2

From Editor's Rant column issue 61 – Autumn 2011

OK, so here’s the scenario. We KNOW that online retailers’ automatic address capture systems often drop either the street address or the building name from their record, so when we were buying an product from a major department store chain a few days ago, we made sure we entered both these items on the same line.

Fine. The retail site quoted back our address exactly as we typed it in. Then next thing, we get an email from the carrier. "We tried to deliver, but you were out." NO WE WEREN’T!!

However, we found that the address quoted in the carrier’s email was hopelessly garbled: flat name (but no number), street number (but no street), then just "London". Oh, and a postcode. Clearly the retailer’s data record got mangled in translation by the carrier’s, and that was the result.

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Snow, and the art of the possible

From Opinion column issue 61 – Autumn 2011

Will it snow?

Well, a Met Office spokesman interviewed by the BBC lately gave a shrewd response: "Yes, it will definitely snow somewhere in the UK this winter."

By which he was gently pointing out that no amount of technology can actually predict what the weather will be like with any certainty for more than about a week ahead.

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We live in a FLAT!

We live in a flat. Have you heard of the concept? When it comes to entering addresses on a lot of shopping web sites, one would have to conclude not.

These days many sites try to save time and improve address accuracy by asking you to enter just your house name or number and the postcode rather than your entire address. They then perform a lookup on this information, and populate the other address fields from a database.

But about half the time this doesn’t work for flats. Here’s the problem: flats have two address lines where other addresses have one. The first is the flat name and number, the second is the street address and street number. Address lookup systems don’t seem to understand this.

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Itís all in the tone of voice

From Editor's Rant column issue 58 – Sprint 2011

My driving licence was stolen. Don’t ask.

It was an old-style paper one with no picture, but remarkably, I found that in even in these circumstances, you can apply for a replacement online. The DVLA will try to look up your picture from the passport office, and use that.

So I went for it, and duly filled in all the questions on several pages. I even paid. I reached the final screen, where I was told that the application was going well, and my payment had been accepted.

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Apps - do they really deliver?

From Opinion column issue 59 – Spring 2011

It’s very cool to offer a mobile app. That’s why retailers such as Debenhams and Very.co.uk have launched them. They don’t want to miss out on the mobile shopping revolution.

A lot of other retailers have so far hung back, according to the latest research. They know something is happening out there, but they don’t quite know how to deal with it, or how seriously to treat it.

Our advice is: don’t panic. Before you pin your flag irrevocably to the mobile shopping app, consider what it is. It’s a computer program dedicated to a single mobile computing platform, giving users a conduit via the internet to a specific web site (yours). In other words, you’ve built a single-purpose browser pointing to a special version of your online shop.

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Reintermediation: is it now unstoppable?

From Opinion column issue 58 – Winter 2010-11

Does anybody remember the world before Microsoft Windows? We had DOS – black-screened and uninviting. But what it did offer was the freedom for software developers to make their applications look and function any way they liked. There were no interface standards for them to follow; everything was exciting and new.

Then Windows and the Mac OS swept all this away, and mostly we welcomed their consistent way of doing things. You didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you used them, or require your friends to be using the same software as you before you could interact with them. Few would want a return to the jungle that was DOS.

Rewind to the present day, and something similar seems to be happening on a far larger scale in all our interactions with the internet. We search on Google, we look things up on Wikipedia, we network on Facebook or LinkedIn, we tweet on Twitter. Using these resources is comfortable and reassuring, and no one seems keen to turn the clock back.

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Who exactly is better off?

From Editor's Rant column issue 58 – Winter 2010-11

Discounting the current recession (if only we could), we’re currently living in a wealthier world than ever before – or so we’re often told.

Why is it, then, that twenty years ago I could phone my bank or my local electrical retailer and speak to someone on the spot at that actual location, whereas now I have to negotiate my way through all sorts of levels obfuscation and complexity, only to reach someone with no local knowledge at a contact centre in some other part of the country (or even across the world).

One has to assume that centralising and handing off customer contact has brought suppliers massive savings in local staff, but who actually benefits? Presumably the retailer or bank and its shareholders do, in the form of increased profits; and possibly we do as consumers, through getting more competitive prices for the things they sell.

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The web didnít kill the high street

From Opinion column, issue 57 - Autumn 2010

High streets are in decline. Even in quite prosperous areas, you can see more and more blanked-off shop fronts. It’s an unsettling trend, and no one welcomes it – not even the most avid stay-at-home internet shoppers. High streets are a prized feature in the texture of our towns and cities.

But let’s not rush to point the finger of blame in the wrong direction. In recent weeks, one or two TV commentators have been heard to attribute this decline to the growth in home shopping. Really?

Even if home shopping reached twenty per cent of all shopping (and it’s some way off that total yet), this would still leave four fifths of shopping in the hands of physical retailers. The reality is that local shops have been in decline since long before the internet came along. Supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres have seen to that.

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Ever-decreasing circles

From Editor's Rant column issue 57 – Autumn 2010

We’ve all railed at web forms that "forget" everything we enter if we have the temerity to go back a stage. Instant fury. Happily, most web forms are now more sophisticated than that; yet somehow they still manage to catch you out. They just do it more subtly.

You get to the final checkout, you notice you entered some detail wrong, so you go back a stage. Abracadabra, your details are still there on the previous page (or so you think), so you correct the mistake and press OK.

Gotcha! Up comes the warning message. You entered your credit card details before, but now they’re gone. You have to type them in again.

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Why two and two still donít make four

From Opinion column issue 56 – Summer 2010

Among leading non-food retailers, e-commerce is now the top investment priority, ranking ahead of store systems. That’s the finding of a survey conducted by Martec International and sponsored by BT Expedite. It says e-commerce came top among 24 per cent of the retailers, compared with 18 per cent for store systems.

So what exactly are those retailers spending their money on? That’s where things get a little puzzling. Yes, you’d assume they would allocate some of their budget to web site usability, customer interaction, search engine optimisation and all the good things that drive online sales.

But wouldn’t you also image that they would be spending a reasonable proportion on making sure that the customers actually get their purchases? Sadly, this still doesn’t seem to be a priority.

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Or is it just me?

From Editor's Rant column issue 53 – Autumn 2009

During a French lesson many years ago, we were told the word for an electric socket was “une prise”. So what was the word for plug, I asked. “La meme chose,” came the answer. I demurred, but found myself ridiculed by both the teacher and classmates. “Don’t be so pedantic,” they cried.

I’m afraid it’s in my nature, and lately I was strongly reminded of it. My credit card is debited every month by various services, and during the month or six weeks leading up to its expiry they all contact me, urging me to register the replacement card’s details “as soon as possible” on their web sites.

But what if they attempt to debit the card after I’ve updated the information, but before the new card comes into effect? Surely the charge will be rejected?

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No winners in mail dispute

From Opinion column issue 53 – Autumn 2009

Almost all home shopping is delivered by parcels carriers or mail services. Carriers are the lifeblood of this entire retail sector. Some are even involved in two-man deliveries (Nightfreight, for instance).

No wonder, then, that the Royal Mail workers’ strike action has sent shudders through the e-retail market. The concern is not so much over short-term delivery problems (worrying though these are), but rather over the potential loss of confidence among shoppers afraid to buy in case their goods will fail to arrive.

Figures from IMRG, the online retail organisation, underline this. In a poll of members, an alarming 77 per cent said they believed a strike would discourage consumers from shopping online this Christmas.

Its impact is not limited to Royal Mail’s own customers. As John Coghlan, chief executive of private express and mail carrier DX, commented when the dispute was looming: “The financial health of Royal Mail is important to us all. The size of the whole market is linked to Royal Mail. They are a major gorilla in the market.”

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One rule for us, another for you

From ‘Editor's Rant’ column, issue 52 – Summer 2009

Question: what do the web sites of the very smallest companies and the very largest tend to have in common? Answer: they often seem to make it almost impossible to find contact details for the company behind them.

Medium-sized companies, which were often guilty of this strange shyness in the past, seem generally to have seen the error of their ways, and these days usually provide a full street address on their web sites, complete with phone number and even an email address.

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We know a man who can

From ‘Opinion column, issue 52 – Summer 2009

So e-retail growth has dipped below ten per cent for the first time since anyone can remember. Should we all run around wailing and gnashing our teeth?

We hardly think so. As IMRG director Tina Spooner points out, e-retail growth is still ten times as high as high-street retail growth, and would be considered remarkably healthy in almost any other market sector. Let’s not get carried away.

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Who calls the shots?

From Editor's Rant column, issue 51 – spring 2009

Do you have to go through a self-abasement ritual in order to persuade your web development department to make even the most trivial changes to the pages of your web site? Do you have to arm yourself with a stiff dose of Dutch courage before you even ask?

Hopefully not; but to judge from many of the retail web sites we encounter, you’d think this was pretty commonplace. How else is it possible to explain the extraordinarily poor web site usability that is still so common on the internet?

How to account for those form fields that request supplementary information about something you haven’t entered yet; for the scolding insistence that information like phone numbers be entered with no spaces in them (anyone who can’t deal with spaces shouldn’t be doing web design); for the forms that revert to default after you enter one wrong piece of information?

Think about this. The Wright brothers pioneered powered flight in 1903, and little more than ten years later, fighter aircraft played modest but significant a role in the First World War.

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Delivery standards – why we need them

From Opinion column, issue 51 – spring 2009

What is a satisfactory home delivery? It’s a more complex question than it sounds.

Purists might say it’s when the item arrives at their front door on a nominated day at a pre-agreed time, and is handed to them personally by the delivery driver.

Others might say it’s when the item is delivered to the nearest post office or convenience store for collection when they’re ready for it. Or left in a locker-box at the railway station they commute from. Or handed to a neighbour. Or slid under a piece of corrugated iron sheeting in the middle of the potato patch.

In an ideal world, online retailers would cater for all these options. Then practically no home delivery would fail. The trouble is, up to now no one has codified all the widely differing approaches to the problem, or formalised them in any way. What is a safe place? What is a drop-box? How does the retailer or carrier recognise these things?

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Wherever you start from, do it right

From Opinion column, issue 50 – winter 2008-9

Internet shopping in the UK increased by 14 per cent in December over the same period last year (IMRG-Cap Gemini figures), whereas retail as a whole fell by 1.4 per cent (BRC-KPMG figures).

So even though retail of all kinds is suffering because of the recession, online is still clearly the place to be.

But what are traditional retailers to make of this? Should they focus their attentions on their online activities in a desperate bid to compensate for declining high street sales? The idea might sound tempting, but it’s surely too simple a solution?

Perhaps the underlying fallacy summed up best in the old story about the man who stops someone in the street to ask directions, and is told: “If I were you I wouldn’t start from here.”

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Where’s the delivery information? Help!

From Editor's Rant column, issue 50 – winter 2008-9

If you’re an online retailer and you’re sensible enough to offer information about delivery at the top of your home page, there’s one chance in three that you’ll make the mistake of hiding this behind a Help button.

This is just one of many frustrating findings to emerge from Snow Valley’s latest Delivery Report (see story list for issue 50). It found that the second most popular name for a link to delivery information is “Customer service” (another obfuscation).

Arguably this speaks volumes about the failure by a wide spectrum of online retailers to understand the importance of delivery.

The term “help” implies that the user already has a problem. People click a Help button when they’re floundering, and you don’t enter a retail web site expecting to be floundering, do you? You expect to find what you want by yourself, and manage your interaction with the site on your own terms.

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Next day or next month? The UK’s turbulent parcels past

Competition may be tough in today’s parcels market, but this fascinating book is a reminder of past troubles in the industry

From In the Air, issue 49 – Autumn 2008

Parcel carriers are the lifeblood of the multi-channel market, providing the essential last-mile delivery to consumers, often next day. But in this age of free market forces and price competitiveness, it’s easy to forget just how different things were in the past, when rates for parcel deliveries were fixed as a matter of course; when industrial discontent could delay goods for days or weeks; and when next-day delivery was almost unknown.

In a new book that is truly breathtaking both in its historical sweep and in its minute detail, Gordon Mustoe and his fellow-writers draw us back to the distant origins of today’s parcels market. The 300 A4 pages and hundreds of black and white photographs of BRS Parcels Services and the Express Carriers bring vividly to life a largely forgotten era.

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Delivery – the resources are there, so why don't retailers use them?

by Marcia MacLeod, from 'Checkout' column, issue 49 (autumn 2008)

The development of wireless networks and mobile communications has certainly improved customer service levels. Gone are the days when drivers set off with their loaded vans and no one – not their depot, not their head office, certainly not the home consumer – had any idea where they were or when they would arrive at any particular delivery point.

Now drivers can receive routes and schedules on handheld devices. In theory they can be informed immediately if a consumer has to go out, and can therefore hold that person's order until later on in the day or take it back to base for re-scheduling. They can also be given a return collection to add to the schedule "on the fly".

In turn, they can tell their depot, by phone, text, SMS or email – and sometimes by just pressing a button on a pre-programmed menu – that they are held up, and subsequent deliveries will be late, or even that they might not be able to deliver their entire load that day.

Better still, they can contact the consumer with the same information. And they can remind consumers they're coming in the morning of D (delivery) Day, or an hour before estimated time of arrival, again using SMS, text, email or voice.

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Why delivery is even more important now

From 'Opinion' column, issue 49 – autumn 2008

What will be the impact of recent world events on the multi-channel market – and indirectly on the logistics support behind it? That's what many in this industry are wondering, though so far it's probably too early to call.

Like all retailing, the multi-channel kind must take some sort of hit – but currently the evidence is that it will maintain growth levels way above those of the high street. Relatively speaking, it's still a good place for retailers to be.

Yet already fierce price competition has hastened the demise of one parcel carrier, Amtrak. Who knows what other fallout will follow?

What is clear is that even if the online market does dip, this can't be regarded as the plateau that some were previously predicting. Exceptional circumstances have prompted the current turmoil, not an arrival at some kind of inevitable peak.

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Street cred comes to delivery solutions

From 'Opinion' column, issue 48

Well, it’s finally happened. Someone (namely ByBox) has come up with what could be a real winner in terms of alternative solutions for the home delivery market: intelligent locker banks combined with public phone boxes on existing phone-box sites.

Shared locker systems have been hovering in the wings of the B2C delivery market for the past eight years, but although increasingly sophisticated, and now widely deployed for field service deliveries, they were never going to cut it with consumers when they were mostly tucked away in filling station forecourts and similar locations.

Getting them literally out on the street, as already seen in Germany and elsewhere, puts a whole new complexion on the idea, and ByBox hasn’t finished there. We’re reliably told it already has other plans up its sleeve to put the boxes where consumers can easily reach them.

Rival Business Direct already has similar locker banks in consumer use in supermarket car parks, and has told us it also has exciting plans to add other accessible locations to its network.

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Best of both worlds, or worst?

From 'Opinion' column, issue 47

The internet is like one enormous shop. That’s probably how a lot of consumers see it, anyway. Web sites are the display shelves, and the service counter is the consumer’s own doorstep.

However, a lot of retailers would probably like to change that perception, and draw online consumers back into their traditional bricks-and-mortar retail stores. But the big question is, should we let them?

Certainly we’re hearing a lot these day about concepts such as “shop online, collect in store”. With this kind of system, retailers are spared the hassle of doing the deliveries, but get the “virtual footfall” offered by the internet, as well as actual footfall in their shops. Win win.

Indeed, you could say this represents the ultimate “unattended delivery solution” to the failed delivery issue, since consumers are collecting their own goods, using exactly the same locations where they would have gone if there’d been no internet in the first place. Problem solved ... or so the retailers would like to have us think.

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When erring towards caution may not pay

Retailers such as Amazon often receive praise for their shrewd policy of adopting a worst-case view of delivery dates. The argument is that if you tell consumers to expect a Wednesday delivery date, but then deliver on Tuesday, they will be impressed. If you do the opposite, they’ll be disappointed.

This is true to a point, but it can backfire.

We’ve just received an email from a consumer that runs as follows:

“I've just had the experience of cancelling an order because the quoted delivery time was too slow, then finding that the actual delivery time would have been acceptable after all.

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The web page – where interaction starts

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 45

Nearly a third of online retailers don’t tell you what delivery will cost you until you register or log in, and fourteen per cent don’t tell you that a customer signature is required on receipt.

Those are among two of the more depressing findings in the latest annual delivery report conducted by Snow Valley in association with IMRG, which is reported in this issue.

Some retailers will argue that it’s a disincentive to potential customers to quote a delivery price until they’ve got the customer hooked in by putting product in their basket and starting the checkout process. “We can afford to lose a few at that stage,” one retailer commented to us.

We say that’s nonsense. It might win you that one sale, but consumers with any sort of memory are likely to mark you down when it comes to repeat business, and favour rivals with a more transparent pricing regime.

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When the music stops

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 46

It’s hard to see internet retailing escape the undeniable slowdown that’s currently being experienced on the high street. When consumers tighten their belts, the effects are likely to be felt across the board.

What seems unlikely to diminish much is the proportion of shopping that is being done online. If anything the figure could see a boost as consumers stay at home, yet can’t resist checking out their favourite retail web sites. Online retailers will no doubt be going into email overdrive to capitalise on their interest.

That means anybody involved in providing fulfilment and other services for this market are probably in a stronger position at the moment than their more conventional counterparts: arguably a fitting reward for their vision.

Eventually the growth of online shopping will presumably start to slacken – not because of any economic downturn, but because the market must surely settle in the end to a natural balance between high street and online sales. But no one yet dares predict how that balance will look.

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When will we get it?

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 35 – spring 2005

When you’re thinking of buying online, and your mouse pointer is hovering over the final “submit” button, what holds you back? Is it fear of credit card fraud, or concerns over product quality? We rather doubt it.

These days, the main inhibitor in our experience is one simple question: will we be around when the product arrives?

The fact that only 12 per cent of online retailers allow customers to choose a delivery day therefore has to be concerning. This emerged from a survey by Metapack (News Update, issue 35). Do all the others realise how much potential business they must be losing?

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Charter needed

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 36 – summer 2005

Back in 2001, when online shopping was still in its relative infancy, the BBC’s consumer affairs programme Watchdog launched a scheme called the Delivery Charter, and several big retailers signed up to it (in name at any rate, since it had no real teeth apart from what it gained from media exposure).

In the way of such things, the original scheme gradually faded from prominence, but some of its tenets bear revisiting. Signatories were supposed to offer “a more specific delivery time” (than what, we don’t know, but the intent was clear); a courtesy phone call in the event of a serious delivery delay; and the option for goods to be delivered “outside of conventional office hours, and at least one day of the weekend”.

Four years on, how many retailers can say with hand on heart that they’ve actually achieved these objectives? Increasing numbers do now offer Saturday delivery – but sometimes at a premium of up to £8, and it’s far from being the norm. A few let consumers actually specify a delivery time. As for a courtesy phone call, well, not on a book or a CD, that’s for sure.

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A charter with teeth

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 37

Two developments on the home shopping front this summer [This was summer 2005 – Editor] underline the progress of this market sector towards the retailing and logistics mainstream.

One was the move by major-league logistics player Salvesen into the home shopping fulfilment market, indicating its expectations of strong growth in this sector.

The other was the launch of the Interactive Media in Retail Group’s Delivery Charter – which promises at last to shake the big e-tailers out of the apathy that many have shown so far towards fulfilment and delivery issues.

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Not engaged

From ‘Checkout’ column, issue 36 – summer 2005

Every time a cold-calling sales person telephones me, they insult me with their very first breath. Every single time.

How so? Let me explain. Ever since I’ve been an adult, I’ve always answered calls to my domestic telephone by stating my own name – clearly and precisely. “Peter Rowlands.” Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet every single time a cold-calling sales person telephones me, no matter how clearly I give my name or how long I wait before doing so, they always and invariably respond by saying to me: “Is that Mr Rowlands?”

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Checkout shouldn’t be an ordeal

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 38

So UK shoppers will spend £5 billion online this Christmas [This was Christmas 2005 – Editor], and for US shoppers the figure will be $18 billion. The figures come from IMRG and Forrester Research respectively.

They are prodigious, and provide yet more evidence (if evidence were needed) of the rapid pace of growth of online shopping, and its emergence as a mainstream channel.

We all know about the fulfilment problems that have dogged the medium, and in our last issue we commended IMRG’s new delivery charter, which is already being fleshed out into a detailed and compelling document.

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Wake-up call

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 39

Let me tell you a story. Last November I ordered a new laptop computer from a London-based manufacturer, and in due time I received a call to say it would be despatched by carrier on its standard next-day delivery service.

It didn’t turn up the next day, even though someone was at home all day to receive it. Or the day after. Or the day after that.

The computer company gave me a tracking number, and I was able to go online and track the consignment on the carrier’s very efficient web site. This very efficiently showed me how each day the computer was scanned on to the delivery van, trundled round London, then scanned off again at the local depot.

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Conspiracy theory

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 40

From the feature on express parcels in issue 40 of Fulfilment & e.logistics (summer 2006), it’s clear that something quite important is happening in the world of home deliveries.

In a word, parcels carriers are becoming more proactive. Instead of simply providing what they’re asked for by retailers, they’re coming up with their own ideas for improving the reliability of the delivery process.

Whether it’s texting customers to advise of arrival times (a Parceline service) or offering evening deliveries (Amtrak and Business Post, among others), they’re trying to help make delivery less expensive and more satisfactory all round.

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Not nice to have, but the norm

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 41

“Multi-channel retail” really is moving into the mainstream – or at least the term itself is. You hear it more and more frequently these days. However, as with so many catch-phrases, to some extent it’s being devalued in the repetition.

“People are starting to use the term loosely, when really they mean direct selling and internet shopping,” says Harry Manley of software house Maginus. He suggests that Gartner’s new term, “channel-agnostic retail”, might be more appropriate.

Perhaps, but there’s one area where multi-channel really is shifting up a gear, and that’s in Tesco’s new non-food home shopping operation. Buy online, on the phone or in store, and pick your own two-hour delivery slot. How much more multi-channel can you get?

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The weakest link?

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 42

Suppose a carrier is trying to deliver some home shopping to you. You’re out, but the fabled “yellow card” gets lost, or is never supplied in the first place. You don’t actually know a delivery attempt has been made at all.

However, being the tecchie that you are, you periodically check the nominated carrier’s tracking web page, and it correctly tells you about the delivery attempt. Armed with that information you drive to the carrier’s local depot, but there you are told that because you have no yellow card, the item can’t be handed over. Your best option is to request a redelivery – and never mind the fact that you might not be there to receive it.

This sounds like a classic Catch 22 situation, but it actually happened to one of our editorial team in the run-up to Christmas. We won’t reveal which carrier was involved; suffice it to say that it was a big national name.

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Delivery – it’s a state of mind

From ‘Opinion’ column, issue 43 – spring 2007

As Fulfilment & e.logistics approaches its seventh birthday (counting from the launch of our predecessor title, e.logistics, back in 2000), we’re very much aware that we’ve been making some of the same points over and over again. But repetition only serves to strengthen us in some of our opinions.

Especially about final delivery. We have always argued, and still argue now, that until delivery is well and truly nailed by multi-channel retailers, they won’t really be on top of their market. And most of them still have a long way to go.

We think that no self-respecting retail web site should omit to display a link to its delivery options prominently on its home page. Not hidden under a “help” button, which many consumers will eschew on the basis that it’s an admission of defeat, but up there in its own right.

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We know where your products are – roughly speaking

by Marcia MacLeod, from ‘Checkout’ column, issue 44 (summer 2007)

Ask any parcel carrier what the most valuable – or most popular – features of their service are, and what do you think their response will be? Track and trace, delivery options, track and trace, price, track and trace, flexibility and ... um ... track and trace. But if you’re the shipper, what is so great about being told all fifty of your parcels were collected yesterday when you already know that because you handed them over to the driver yourself?

Visibility in the supply chain was the main topic of conversation at EyeforTransport’s recent transport technology forum in Amsterdam – and shippers overwhelming agreed that track and trace doesn’t give anywhere near the level of visibility they need.

Track and trace might be able to tell you where something is – if the information is updated quickly enough. But it can’t tell you how long goods have been in the same place, or whether there are any problems with delivery, or why and how to sort them out.

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Why emails should say what they mean

We read that more and more consumers want to communicate with online retailers by email. OK, well considering the fact that many consumer emails are never answered at all, you might feel relieved and gratified if you receive any kind of response to yours. But what if you get one that doesn’t actually resolve your question?

Here’s a neat piece of ellipsis in an email correspondence I’ve been having with a retailer. I had to return some faulty goods, and I wasn’t clear about the refund process. So I sent the supplier an email asking whether the refund would be activated automatically once they received the goods back into stock, or whether I had to take some action myself at that point.

And here’s the reply: “Once the parcel is returned to our warehouse we will be able to issue you a refund.”

Right – so they “will be able” to issue me a refund. But does that mean they actually WILL issue a refund, or merely that they “will be able” to do it if I ask them to? They haven’t actually spelled it out, so I’m left none the wiser.

The joys of ambiguity!

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