Supply Chain Woes Shed Light on Transactional Email Opportunities

By Laura Carrier

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How many times have you bought something online only for it to be delayed, and then not received up-to-date information from the retailer?

The same issue applies to the millions of returns shipped back to a retailer this January with little accompanying information. Supply chain and labor shortage issues are causing major headaches for retailers as they scramble to improve transactional communications for customers, and it's not going away.

But just because a retailer doesn't control the supply chain (although some like Walmart, IKEA, and Amazon are working on it!) doesn't mean they can't create better customer experiences throughout the process.

It's not just the supply chain that is driving this change; today's customers expect a unified commerce experience, which means an orchestrated communications plan, including transactional emails. Connecting transactional and marketing communications is a powerful way to reduce friction and improve customer experiences.

If retailers don't act quickly, they'll soon fall behind as leading retailers around them invest in better customer experiences. Transactional emails are a critical part of lifecycle marketing, and the more retailers can position messaging to maximize customer experience, the better they can weather supply chain issues, competitors, and impatient customers.

Check Your Customer Experience

The first thing a retailer needs to do is an audit that runs through a variety of scenarios. There are many different types of transactional emails from post-purchase and shipping to loyalty to BNPL communications.

It's important not only to look at every transactional email that is sent out, but also to map out the different experiences consumers have in various scenarios. Some of the most common scenarios are the ones most fraught with issues: look at what emails a customer receives if they ask to be notified if an item is back in stock, if their item(s) is delayed, if they are executing a return or exchange, if they purchase an item that is on backorder, or if they purchase multiple items with different statuses.

Once the major customer journeys are mapped out, retailers can perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine what kind of drop-off they experience, and which communications will produce the highest positive customer experience. For example, retailers can see what percentage of people never purchased an item that they got a "back in stock" notification for. This will help retailers prioritize which transactional email element to improve first.

Time To Test a New Experience

Some new ideas can be up and running in less than a day. For example, when customers sign up for back in stock alerts, Adidas reminds the customer that they're still waiting for an item with a triggered message two weeks after signing up saying that the item is still not available. A retailer with no reminder can run an A/B test to see if this new messaging keeps more customers warm, and ultimately leads to more sales.

Want some more easy wins? Retailers can also test improvements to the logic behind their triggered emails. For example, suppressing "review your recent purchase" emails if a product hasn't been delivered yet. Returns also offer a quick opportunity for a better experience.

Returns are projected to be higher than normal this post-holiday season and the process is often one of the most frustrating experiences for customers. At the same time, a retailer's most loyal shoppers are also often their highest returners. Most delivery confirmation emails do not have a single click through to the returns process.

Making it difficult to return an item is simply bad customer service. Adding the link is a super quick win! And once the customer gets their refund, why not showcase some fresh items for them to consider now that they have money in their pocket?

It's also important to start connecting insights from different elements of the customer experience, even if it means committing to a bigger project. For instance, Target lets customers know every time an estimated delivery date changes. Rather than providing a single estimate in the confirmation email, these updates help keep customers informed and engaged, likely reducing customer service costs and improving customer experience.

Marketers that can provide integrated communications with their shipping platform(s) are able to provide mid-point delivery information to customers about their specific packages that are orchestrated with their marketing program.

For example, if the customer is not going to receive it by a key date, a message can be triggered to promote something similar that is in stock right now. These capabilities are becoming more and more important – not just because of supply chain issues, but also as customers become more accustomed to immediate deliveries beyond just groceries.

Become a Transactional Email Hero

To create unified customer communications across transactional and marketing messages, the technological solutions vary; it may be to combine transactional and marketing emails into one ESP, or it may be to develop an orchestrated messaging approach through integration and unification of the company's marketing technology solutions.

Either way, this approach can be a game changer for retailers competing with agile digital-first companies like Wayfair. The home goods retailer combines the transactional experience with personalized marketing offers, not only sending notices when an item is back in stock, but also sending interim emails of similar items that are available for immediate shipping during the waiting period in case a customer is enticed to buy something else sooner.

Similarly, for high importance alerts, many retailers are starting to include SMS messaging in their transactional messaging journey to great effect. Ulta Beauty provides an access code to customers who share their phone number to receive appointment-related SMS messages, which gained popularity with many retailers as more people used curbside pickup during the pandemic. Ulta takes it a step further by giving loyalty members an SMS message about well targeted deals that they can opt out of at any time.

Hopefully the current supply chain strain is temporary. However, retailers have a long-term opportunity to dramatically improve their ROI by creating a unified communications and commerce experience. The more customers are exposed to orchestrated, consistent, and relevant information and offers, the more they'll come to expect it, and react positively to it in the months ahead.


Laura Carrier is the retail consultant to Sailthru.


The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.