The oldest of several dozen one-star reviews on Google dates back to a year ago, though most of the complaints were published in the last fourth months, presumably in conjunction with the surge in online shopping amidst the COVID-19 shutdown.
Lew, executive chairman of Global Retail Brands, the largest privately owned specialty homewares retailer in the country, said he hired 20 additional team members to assist with customer service in the last three months, but the complaints continue to stack up. The most recent one was posted less than a week ago.
“We acknowledge the complaints and want to be on the front foot with them,” Lew told Inside Retail. “Our ethos across the company is that if you don’t look after your customer, someone else will.”
The recent debacle highlights the risks that accompany a sudden spike in online orders even for an established business like Global Retail Brands, which operates over 170 House and Robins Kitchen stores nationwide, as well as online through the House, Robins Kitchen, Pet House and Your Home Depot e-commerce sites. The company recently bought MyHouse out of administration and plans to expand the homewares chain interstate by the end of 2020.
According to an online shopping report published by Australia Post last week, online sales in the 30 days to April 30, 2020, were up 6.8 per cent on the 30 days to December 18, 2019, a period that includes both Black Friday and the pre-Christmas rush.
“In April alone, we saw over 200,000 new online shoppers enter the market, and a million more people overall shopping online every week when compared to the average in 2019,” Ben Franzi, Australia Post’s GM of parcel and express services, said in the report.
The influx of orders has put pressure on every aspect of the fulfilment process, from picking and packing in the warehouse to delivering parcels to the customer’s doorstep. The national carrier admitted in April that it was experiencing “severe delays”. Retailers have also struggled to keep up.
“We found we needed to be working [in the warehouse] three shifts a day, seven days a week to keep up with the orders,” Lew said.
“That’s easier said than done because you need to buy new material handling equipment, you have to have downtime of an hour between shifts to clean all the materials and provide a safe work environment and you have to train staff.”
The company’s average lead time for shipping orders blew out from less than two days to four days. Combined with delivery delays, people started flooding the phone lines to track down their orders.
“The picking problem we fixed to a degree, but we didn’t have enough people to answer the telephones,” Lew explained.
In fact, some customers complained in their online reviews that the company was virtually uncontactable. Calls placed to the phone number listed on the website were put on hold and automatically disconnected after 20 minutes. Emails sent to the address listed on the website went unanswered. And attempts to use the live chat function on the website simply didn’t work.
Lew did not respond to specific questions about these complaints except to say that the company had hired additional customer service staff and overhauled its live chat functionality.
But at least two customers said they contacted the ACCC after being unable to resolve issues with their orders through customer service. Lawyer Jacqueline Ivosevic became concerned about the status of her $400 order after reading other negative reviews online and attempted to contact the company, but didn’t receive a reply from Global Retail Brands until she asked a colleague to send a letter alleging breaches of Australian Consumer Law.
Another customer, who identified themselves online as Jack Bowles, said they complained to the consumer watchdog after their order was delivered without one of the items they had paid for and they were unable to reach the company.
According to University of Melbourne professor Jeannie Paterson, an expert in the area of contracts and consumer protection, most retailers tend to go out of their way to satisfy customers, but there actually isn’t a law that says who is responsible for an online order that goes missing or is broken in transit.
“Most digital platforms offer very good rights of return because they’re very aware and concerned about their reputation,” she said.
Global Retail Brands is not the first retailer to get caught in the catch-22 that occurs when a customer service team becomes overwhelmed by a spike in enquiries and can’t respond to each one, causing customers to become ever more frustrated and send additional enquiries, further overwhelming the team.
Dean Taylor, CEO of online retailer Winedepot, had a similar experience when a glass bottle shortage led to shipping delays at Cracka Wines. The most important thing to do is be upfront with customers, Taylor said.
“If you’re trying to deal with customers one-on-one in phone calls or online chats, you won’t be able to keep up. There are a lot of other communication channels you can use to let them know there’s an issue, like your website and email marketing, but a lot of companies don’t do that because they’re trying to hide the issue,” he said.
“But all that effort to manage one-on-one conversations is time-consuming, and it frustrates customers more when they know there’s a problem, but the company is ignoring it.”