After the coronavirus pandemic forced most of the country into lockdown, online shopping soared. According to CCInsights.org, by the end of April 2020 there was a 146% year-over-year increase in U.S. and Canadian online retail orders. Amazon was so overwhelmed by the combination of increased demand, logistical nightmares, and warehouse worker safety issues that the company announced significant delays in its Amazon Prime shipping speeds. When the company announced it would prioritize the shipping of essential items, the online retailer’s third-party sellers were left to manage their own shipping — something Amazon usually did for them.
Shoppers who placed orders for non-essential products at the end of March sometimes received estimated delivery dates of more than a month away.
While consumers often received their orders sooner than the 30-day estimate, for Prime shoppers used to getting their items delivered for free the next day, the change in delivery speed was a shock. Amazon shoppers turned to alternative outlets that promised much quicker delivery speeds. Companies with strong e-commerce positions and supply chains, such as Walmart, took advantage of Amazon’s situation.
“People are very sensitive to delivery and how fast they can get products,” said Ruomeng Cui, assistant professor in information systems & operations management. “Maybe, just maybe, Amazon would be able to deliver faster than one month, but they chose to promise customers one month — that was their choice.” Unfortunately for Amazon, by setting conservative delivery speed promises, they exacerbated an already bad situation.
According to Cui’s paper “Sooner or Later? Promising Delivery Speed in Online Retail” (Ruomeng Cui, Tianshu Sun, Zhikun Lu and Joseph M. Golden), optimizing delivery speed promise can have a substantial effect on a company’s sales. How substantial? Without changing the actual delivery speed itself — only the delivery speed promise — Cui’s research showed that when the retailer promised customers one day faster shipping, sales increased, profits increased, and customers spent more on each order.
“It’s a very critical decision for retailers to try to determine how to manage delivery and how to manage the information aspect of delivery,” added Cui.
The study is attached and found two key findings:
The value of communicating delivery times
From a customer satisfaction standpoint, the conservative disclosure lowered customer satisfaction while the aggressive disclosure didn’t affect the company’s satisfaction score, although it did increase product returns when shipping speed was overly aggressive and products were delivered late. “These results indicate that in our research context, promising customers a faster delivery speed can boost sales and profitability but at the cost of a higher product return rate,” the researchers wrote. They go on to caution retailers that promising a conservative shipping speed can be costly. “It’s a careful balance that companies need to think about — how to manage customers’ expectations properly,” explained Cui.
Crafting the delivery promise
Given online retailers’ adoption of machine learning, Cui believes companies could tweak their algorithms to explore what products and which types of customers are more tolerant to over-promising as it relates to the delivery speed promise.
“Companies can then use the analysis to customize and differentiate the types of products that adopt different types of information strategies,” Cui said. “Just change your algorithm, learn and incorporate some of the data-driven decisions and methods.”
Going forward, Cui hopes to customize algorithms for companies in an effort to help them dynamically optimize how to promise the correct delivery speed to customers. While many companies, like Collage.com, don’t own their own delivery function and can’t change the actual delivery speed by changing infrastructure, these companies can “manage the information,” said Cui. “It’s easy, and I think it should be the retailer’s responsibility and job to optimize.”
“I want to advocate for all retailers to think strategically in their information aspect,” said Cui. “Don’t let such an easily fixed lever just sit there at almost zero cost.”
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Ruomeng Cui Associate Professor of Information Systems & Operations Management
Cui's research focuses on how operations strategies create and deliver value in companies' digital transformation