Over the last 12 months e-commerce has skyrocketed. This trend is not going to go away any time soon. But unfortunately many fashion brands and retailers are missing out because they do not have a fully integrated, value-added outsourced fulfilment service in place.

A case in point is Primark, which has predominantly been closed throughout the UK’s Covid pandemic and, to some extent, Arcadia Group, whose various brands were acquired by Asos and Boohoo. In Primark’s case it doesn’t intend to shift online, but in Asos and Boohoo’s case, they are mainly keeping the online versions of the brands acquired.

Within any e-commerce strategy, a crucial component that determines long-term success is the approach to fulfilment, which is the delivery of goods to consumers. The quality of this entire process defines the customer’s experience and perception of the brand delivering their goods. It comprises a number of key factors and includes the look and feel of the packaging and timeliness of delivery. To be effective, this part of the customer journey must consistently deliver goods accurately and on time.

So if apparel firms intend to capitalise on the opportunity presented by e-commerce, they will need to consider what their fulfilment processes look like and if they need to change. 

First impressions

Too many fashion retailers underestimate the impact of fulfilment on customer experience. Spending a fortune on carefully curated websites and great delivery promises is a wasted investment if the product turns up late, damaged or covered in unnecessary packaging. A pretty website is essential to enticing someone to buy – but unpacking the product is the customer’s first real experience of many retailers, and that impression will last.

Ensuring the right product arrives when promised is just the start. Good fulfilment is so much more. The way the product is presented, from the neatly folded packing slip, to the personalised message, to the carefully considered low-impact packaging, should reflect the brand and reinforce the customer experience.

Presentation is just one part of this experience. Communication is another. Can the customer track the product from the moment they press buy, around the warehouse, onto a courier’s van and into their hands? Is there a simple returns process? We all know that many customers buy multiple sizes of the same outfit to try on at home and want to return those that do not fit. So can customers access a returns portal, select a reason for their return and track the product back? And is that customer experience the same every day – whether a retailer is selling 5,000 items or 10,000 to the UK or across the world?

Traditional ‘direct to consumer’ fulfilment

A fulfilment process that doesn’t reflect the brand values and customer experience is selling the business short. Getting this right during Direct to Consumer (D2C) fulfilment is challenging, especially for companies that want to compete with established fashion and apparel firms, who offer next-day delivery and a range of courier options.

For these teams, scaling up to cover peak periods like Black Friday and Christmas can become a conundrum. The issue here includes recruiting skilled staff and ensuring consistent quality, from picking accuracy to packaging. That’s just for expected peak sales.

But, how can a fashion brand scale up in response to an unexpected plug in a magazine or from an Insta-influencer? This might be a business-changing opportunity. So how can that opportunity be grasped without a robust, scaleable and repeatable fulfilment model?

Most entrepreneurs who create and sell fashion do so because they’re excited about fashion. Not many people get excited about fulfilment. But it’s this crucial part of the supply chain that can make or break an online business, drive ongoing sales and deliver a great customer experience. So apparel firms really need to consider how they can get this right.

Accuracy, economies of scale and personalisation

A crucial part is to consider using outsourced fulfilment to support with execution of warehouse management and deliveries. It offers economies of scale and ensures firms can respond to spikes in demand without affecting the quality of customer experience.

But this is not just about efficiently getting a product into a box and onto a van. A tailored service ensures that every package is appropriately branded – and product tracking services can also be customised to reflect a fashion firm’s brand, creating a true extension of the customer experience.

If a retailer is to achieve that essential match of fulfilment experience to the core brand value, there are many issues to consider up front. Fundamentally, it’s vital to be realistic about the delivery promise. That means developing a clear understanding of the cost model. What does it cost to ship to the UK and internationally? What is the variance between next-day and longer shipping times – and how much do courier prices vary? Equally, what does the complete cost model look like?

Further, if it’s a luxury apparel brand, is free shipping essential to reinforce a brand’s luxury feel, or does the retailer need to set a minimum spend threshold to make free shipping viable?

Streamlining the process

Many delivery policies will not be set in stone – and for fashion and apparel brands with a diverse product portfolio and customer base, this is likely to vary. A GBP500 handbag may justify expensive gift wrapping, packaging and free shipping; but a GBP40 handbag might just require a standard box and shipping costs. Without continuously updated information about fulfilment costs, such decisions can only be based on gut feel – and that is where too many fashion firms have been caught out and sold products at a loss.

In today’s e-commerce dominated market, apparel fulfilment is now an art and science: it needs to look great and generate profit. A good, outsourced fulfilment partner can help these kinds of retailers to develop packaging that reflects the brand image. They can provide insight into the pros and cons of recycled materials – from the additional weight that has to be taken into account for any air freight, to balancing the cost of recycled packaging against the value of customer perception and approval.

More efficient fulfilment processes can also recoup significant costs – especially in the area of inventory management. Despite the cost of storage, far too many retailers have dire stock management processes. A fulfilment partner should share continuous insight regarding stock levels, seasonality and the age of stock. They should be working with their retailers to show where costs could be recouped – such as the opportunity costs associated with retaining a warehouse full of unsold items. What else could be in that space that would be delivering revenue? What could be sold at a small discount today to avoid a mass offload in a few months as a product gets out of season? Proactive inventory management can transform the retail cost model.

Fashion fulfilment is about much more than the cost of getting a product from a warehouse to a customer. It is a complex and crucial extension of the customer experience, that will define a customer’s brand perception.

For many brands it covers more than the cost of shipping a product from a warehouse to a customer and forms a vital part of managing its retail operations and the management of inbound and outbound stock. Apparel firms that fail to explore e-commerce and the benefits that outsourced fulfilment offer to the customer experience run the risk of missing what many consumers want today.

About the author: James Hyde is co-founder and CEO of James and James Fulfilment. James Hyde is an engineering graduate from the University of Cambridge. After a spell as an angel investor’s apprentice, he spotted the chance to modernise e-commerce fulfillment. With friend and fellow Cambridge graduate, James Strachan, he founded James and James Fulfilment in 2010. The company provides outsourced fulfillment services to independent retailers, founded on its own unique technology and processes.