HIGH POINT — Adjusting services to accommodate consumer comfort levels for receiving goods at their home and broadening communications efforts to keep those customers informed of their order’s progress are among the major changes retailers are making to re-invent the final-mile experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting impact on delivery times.
Those were big points coming out of a retail panel discussion during the Furniture Today Leadership Conference moderated by JB Hunt Vice President of Business Development Josh DeLay. During the pandemic, Bob’s Discount developed new service levels and safety procedures, and it marketed those changes to customers and final-mile partners alike in order to safely service unanticipated business levels coming out of shutdowns.
Service-wise, Vice President of Delivery Operations and Logistics Peter Sorrentino pointed to institution of contactless delivery in addition to existing white-glove and threshold service. In addition, the retailer adopted safety protocols internally and among its carrier base. Also, rather than shut down its distribution operations during retail closures and stay-at-home orders, Bob’s took a different approach, “hibernating” vs. closing up operations. That helped position the retailer for a boom in demand this summer.
“When a bear comes out of hibernation, they’re aggressive and hungry for more, and that was the idea we wanted to sell to our delivery network,” Sorrentino said. “We have more than 40 delivery depots, and we ‘hibernated’ more than half. As we started to bring them back … we went from a hibernated model to a start-up model and now to what we call an FPP model, Flex Plan Plus” incorporating the new service levels. E-commerce player Renegade Furniture Group found customer communication, always important, became even more critical during the pandemic.
“One of the first things we realized was that we’d acquired a new customer,” said Global Business Director Levi Dinerman, referring to a wave of business from people who’d never bought furniture online before COVID-19. “We had to adapt to provide more patience, more care, more peace of mind throughout COVID, and I think that was a very important adjustment for us, catering to this new type of customer.”
It wasn’t just customers new to online furniture purchasing that were antsy about delivery. That meant revamping Renegade’s communications processes, especially considering production delays.
“We enhanced our communications regarding order status, explaining to our customers what the overall process is, why the order might take some time, why the delays,” Dinerman said, adding Renegade had to focus on issues within its control.
“Manufacturing and production delays are way beyond our control, but maybe we could offer the customer options,” he continued, such as offering information on like product at the click of a button if the first choice was out of stock.
Will Harris, president of Darvin’s Furniture & Mattresses, reminded that home delivery marks a store’s final brand impression on consumers.
“What has changed, especially this year, is how we communicate with the customer and manage the influx of orders we’ve had,” Harris said, offering specifics. “We put together a call center during the shutdown itself to service those who … needed additional assistance over the phone, and it was our last-mile partners that delivered on that.
“We’ve also doubled, often tripled our ability to communicate with the customer,” he continued. “We put in a whole new department here called ‘order endless,’ and that department’s sole job is tracking those orders and providing our customer a higher level resource so we can speak with them and help them understand what process is taking place.”
Darvin’s found customer communication involves meeting them “where they are,” whether that’s text, e-mail or on the phone.
“Some of our customers see the phone ringing, and they don’t answer it,” Harris said. “A text … makes a lot more sense.”
Williams-Sonoma delivers everything from small parcels such as tableware to 400-pound dressers, but Executive Vice President of Operations Steve Anderson said consumers’ final-mile expectations are consistent across the board in three aspects: speed, choice and, of course, communication and visibility.
“In this day and age, from the time the customer hits ‘click to buy,’ all the way to when it shows up at their house, they want to be able to watch the experience,” Anderson said. “They want to be able to see that string of pearls out there from order placed to vendor distribution center, through transportation to the final mile hub all the way to delivery day. They want to be able to see that piece of merchandise coming right from the hub and what time it will be at their home.”
He likened it to the Domino’s Pizza experience that lets customers track from oven to door.
“We had two-hour delivery windows,” Anderson noted, “but with some of the technology today, (our final-mile carriers) are managing that to 30 minutes.”