As we gear up for 2015 peak, here is a feature from the very start of the year, which appeared in the first print edition of our magazine. In it, our executive edit0r, Emma Herrod, reflected on how the industry coped with Black Friday and Christmas. Did a combination of click-and-collect, and Sunday delivery, really help save Christmas? And if that’s the case, can they be called upon once again?
UK shoppers spent just 5% more in December 2014 than they did in 2013 as almost a fifth of online Christmas shopping was done over the long Black Friday weekend at the end of November, according to CapGemini and ecommerce industry association IMRG.
What seemed like a long weekend for ecommerce was an even longer time for many working in back-end operations and logistics as parcel volumes over the Black Friday weekend increased by 30% above the expected level. MetaPack recorded 2.5 million parcels – a thousand a minute – across retailers using its systems. There was also an 86% increase in the number of cross-border shipments compared to 2013.
Some 70% of UK e-retailers ran promotions over the Black Friday weekend with sales up by 180%. Even those retailers that didn’t run promotions enjoyed the halo effect with sales increasing by 24%. In total, 17% of Christmas sales were made during the week commencing 23 November, according to IMRG with £810m spent on Black Friday and £720m on Cyber Monday.
Last year was already panning out to be a record one with parcel volumes growing by 16% on 2013’s level as consumers became used to shopping online more often for small orders. Most carriers were handling the increased volumes and service levels were improving, according to the IMRG MetaPack Delivery Index. Industry was well prepared for Christmas trading with extra capacity brought into play by both retailers and carriers. These measures included: new hubs and depots; more vehicles and drivers; better controls and contingency planning; increased number of Click and Collect locations; in store; pick-up and drop-off points and lockers.
According to Andrew Starkey, head of e-logistics at IMRG, the industry was expecting a 12% increase in orders. And then Black Friday happened and a short-term spike had a major impact.
First, order levels in the week up to 28 November dropped as shoppers waited to see what bargains could be had. Then, the spike in orders over the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend created a ‘peak on a peak’ with levels rising to 30% above those expected as orders which had been deferred from the previous week were placed. The promotional activity also brought forward order volumes that had been predicted for the following ‘Manic Monday’ of 8 December.
The actual product mix altered over the Black Friday period too with carriers expecting small parcels or whatever a retailer’s ‘normal’ order looks like. Instead, they were receiving large boxes as bargain-hunting customers bought cases of wine or large electrical items such as TVs.
While December’s volume of 120 million parcels was 12% up on 2013’s level, the change in customer behaviour created what Starkey is calling the “online tsunami of retail”. By the time Manic Monday came around “the pipeline was already blocked,” he says. “Carrier quality scores dropped to 89.2% over the following two weeks.” In that fortnight the industry struggled to deliver orders from the Black Friday weekend on time. The fact that only 3.5% of deliveries were carded in December, compared to the normal level of 3%, showed that delivery drivers were still doing their job properly and giving people time to answer their door to accept delivery.
Then came the demise of City Link on Christmas Eve and the fire at the Hermes depot in Warrington. Yodel – which had planned for a 15% increase in capacity – decided to defer collections for two days in order to clear its backlog, although it did say once collections resumed that “new parcels entering the Yodel network may still be subject to a 24-48 hour delay which is reflective of normal Christmas peak operations.”
“It was a brave step by Yodel to close everything for 2 days,” says Starkey, who is keen to point out that by the end of December, there was no more volume than expected in the carrier networks. In fact, during the slow-down before Christmas, Yodel had cleared the backlog as well as delivering extra orders that were destined for delivery post-Christmas.
Of course, blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of the carriers. It is down to retailers to predict order levels and capacity requirements. Starkey claims to have seen parcels arriving with a carrier that were picked 10 days after the customer placed their order.
Thus Black Friday highlighted weak points in retailers’ systems, too, as high traffic levels brought queuing systems into operation on their websites and tested back-end systems. Marks & Spencer stopped next-day deliveries as its Castle Donnington DC failed to cope with high order levels. Customers were also warned that orders could take up to two weeks to arrive.
Commenting on the “unsatisfactory performance”, Marc Bolland, M&S chief executive, said the disruption “strongly impacted .com and in turn, general merchandise performance in December. We have already made progress in addressing this and have now returned to our improved delivery proposition.”
Dan Wagner, CEO and founder of Powa Technologies, comments: “Those retailers who came out on top over Christmas such as John Lewis and House of Fraser implemented a multi-faceted, digital approach focusing on in-demand services such as click-and-collect and allowing consumers to take control of their shopping experience, from start to finish.”
Highlighting the increase in Click & Collect as 2014 turns out to be a truly multichannel Christmas, John Cleland, chief executive of Maplin says that it has seen “an impressive 40% growth in people shopping online, but choosing to collect in one of our 218 stores for added convenience and in-store help and advice.”
Debenhams also reported increased demand for its Click & Collect service, which peaked in the final days before Christmas as the fulfilment method for 38% of online orders. The company reports that its DCs performed well throughout the period, particularly with next-day delivery to home and next-day click and collect. In fact, next-day services accounted for 49% of orders in the seven days leading up to Christmas and the retailer says it has seen “a significant improvement in customer satisfaction” with Click & Collect.
Some retailers thrived in the Black Friday trading environment; with Alex Baldock, chief executive of Shop Direct, saying that “we’re planning to make it even bigger and better next time.”
Others, though, are more wary. Andy Street, managing director of John Lewis, believes that Black Friday should be focused on electrical goods (sales of which were up 40.9% at johnlewis.com) and warns that “it is not in the interests of retailers to continue to grow the pace of Black Friday at the expense of other weeks”. Johnlewis.com took 13,000 orders in its peak trading hour on Black Friday – against Amazon.co.uk’s 230,000.
He says: “This year confirmed the new shape of trade for Christmas, with an early peak at the end of November driven by Black Friday and last-minute gift buying. With Black Friday driving a higher proportion of online sales and customers increasingly wanting more convenience, this has meant a real concentration on fulfilment, making this a truly ‘Logistics Christmas’. The investments we have made and the new capabilities we have built in recent years in distribution and IT have been fundamental in ensuring we successfully navigate this changing shape of trade.”
He adds: “Successfully reacting and responding to fluctuations in this season’s shopping patterns has been critical in ensuring we can deliver Christmas to our customers across all our shopping channels.”
John Lewis acknowledges online as the main driver in its 5-week Christmas trading period as it recorded £777m in sales across all channels. Some 56% of online orders were fulfilled via Click & Collect, of which more than 60% were collected from Waitrose stores. Around 3% were delivered to third party locations such as Collect+.
Teams in John Lewis’s distribution centres picked and packed 54% more online parcels compared to 2013’s Black Friday event with this uplift increasing to +87% on Saturday as customer orders from Friday were processed.
Dino Rocos, operations director at John Lewis, says: “There was clearly huge customer anticipation of Black Friday this year and we knew we had high expectations to meet, both in terms of the products we had on offer through our ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ commitment, and in ensuring that we fulfilled customer orders as promised.
“For me, our biggest achievement was delivering an operation which ran like clockwork. To have delivered successfully on customer expectation is a testament to the work of our Partners, both on Black Friday itself and in our forward planning.”
So, while parcel backlogs caused by the aftermath of Black Friday forced some retailers to renege on their delivery guarantees, others coped well, proving that there is still growth to come from the online channel and collection services. “The main factor constraining online is the retailers themselves: their systems still show signs of strain at peak times and they need to be able to cope from order to delivery,” says David McCorquodale, head of retail at KPMG.
While Starkey believes that Black Friday wasn’t predicted because “it hadn’t happened before”, Stuart Higgins, retail partner at LCP Consulting, disagrees. “It was entirely predictable. It has been common knowledge that carrier capacity was going to be tight,” he says, “with some carriers running at a loss, re-engineering their businesses or even reducing capacity.”
“Retailers are good at selling but less good at forecasting what those sales are going to be,” says Higgins. “Retailers need to recognise that, as online volumes grow, they need to be better able to predict future volumes in order to book that capacity with the carriers. The carrier model is inherently flexible, with capacity being determined by the number of vans on the road. Any carrier can flex this capacity, given enough notice, but they won’t carry spare capacity just in case the retailers get their forecasts wrong.”
A sentiment echoed by Starkey, who believes that it’s not realistic to expect the carriers to invest for extra capacity for peak, especially since they will not have made extra money out of Black Friday 2014. He suggests a three-fold approach to overcoming issues in 2015: expanding click-and-collect – which, along with weekend delivery was the saviour of the 2014 multichannel Christmas – building extra capacity and incentivising customers so that orders can be fulfilled during slack periods, such as at midnight or 9am.
Craig Wheeler, operations direct at Feelunique, asks whether all of the shoppers ordering over Black Friday wanted their orders delivered the next day, or with the standard, free delivery which caused the issues and backlogs, or would most have been happy to have guaranteed delivery before Christmas? Another approach is suggested by Jon Lawton, European ecommerce manager at Rocket Dog, who comments: “Black Friday will get earlier.”
This is probably true if you look at how the US-owned retailers ran promotions for Black Friday week. UK retailers may follow suit in 2015.
However it is handled in 2015, Black Friday has revealed weak points in fulfilment operations that need to be resolved before 2015 when customers might do all of their festive shopping in one promotional weekend and then wait for Christmas Day to hit the sales.
This feature first appeared in the debut print edition of eDelivery magazine, EDM01, January 2015
‘Buy More Stuff’ image – Black Friday 2010, Westlake Seattle. Copyright John Henderson. Image from Flickr, under creative commons. View original image here.