The New Age of Convenience

Written By
Derek Szopa

The year 2020 saw a dramatic transformation in how Americans shop. From a further expansion of e-commerce to new in-store work-arounds and revised returns processes, , retail has turned a corner. But the pace might be a little dizzying. What are consumers looking for? And what do we need to do to keep up?

E-commerce had a great year in response to lockdowns across the country, boosting innovation to new heights. It’s hard to remember a time when an online presence might have been secondary to the in-store experience for many brands. But convenience is king in this new era. Brick and mortar shops have had to expand their presence online, and many have also found salvation in offering curbside pickup to customers looking for a faster, more local alternative to online shopping.

New kid on the block: curbside pickup explodes

Curbside pickup as a concept has been around for a while, but was fairly rare. It was only after traditional in-store retail was forced shut in many areas that it finally had a chance as a mainstream alternative. According to data from merchants on Signifyd’s commerce platform, curbside orders grew a whopping 450% at the height of the pandemic. But even once non-essential stores re-opened, the same merchants found that customers still opted for curbside pickup almost three times more often than before the pandemic – a trend that suggests customers have embraced the new retail option. Skipping the shipping and supporting their local community are strong advantages over traditional e-commerce or in-store retail.

If these shifts in retail preference maintain their popularity and become a permanent adjustment to the omnichannel mix, they present an interesting challenge for retailers. Consumers have already made up their minds about products they prefer to order online and those they can run to the store for, so what differentiates an order for curbside pickup? Finding value in those key factors will be the key to a future for curbside pickup among American consumers.

Shifting shipping standards

Being stuck at home has a way of changing customer behavior. While e-commerce was certainly a core part of the American lifestyle pre-pandemic, its prevalence rocketed across all categories in 2020. The US Census Bureau reported consumer e-commerce sales grew 44.5% in Q2 2020 compared with the same quarter the year before. This makes the factor of shipping and delivery time a significant factor. The surge in e-commerce was sudden and didn’t go as smoothly as anyone would have hoped with brands and carriers unprepared for the demand, but consumers graciously, or resignedly, accepted that there’s only so much to be done to mitigate shipping delays. ShipStation found that 68% of consumers lowered their expectations for delivery speed during the pandemic.

However, consumers aren’t willing to yield entirely – in exchange for their patience, they’re asking for more transparency around delivery times, expecting brands to communicate more proactively. Nearly all (94%) of these consumers expect brands to have information about delays readily available on their website.

Planning for returns

Returns are a thorn in the side of any retail business, and e-commerce has only increased their incidence. Online customers aren’t always able to confirm the size or quality of a product the way they once did by shopping the aisles of a store, so many prefer to order a few different items to find the right fit and return what they don’t need. Post-purchase experience company Narvar found 41% of shoppers place an order believing they will need to return at least a part of it.

But consumers aren’t happy with just any return option – they want them to be convenient. In the ShipStation study, 44% of consumers are looking for free returns and 58% expect the extended return windows that brands introduced during the pandemic to stick around for the long term, but only 26% of online shoppers in Digital Commerce 360’s August Fulfillment survey found that their return experience had met or exceeded their expectations.

The dust is still settling on this new era of retail and the transformation isn’t showing any sign of slowing, but CloudSort is working to bring cutting-edge technology to shippers and 3PLs in an effort to help them navigate and thrive. Faster ground transportation through smarter sorting and routing, not to mention real-time data feeds and increased transparency, can help any delivery system run more smoothly. The future may be uncertain, but the central role e-commerce will play is not.