BOPIS substitution processes need work

Source: Foods
Oct 24, 2022

A new university study exploring BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in-store) finds consumers are more likely to be satisfied with substitutions for out-of-stocks when the item is a staple, like ketchup or paper towels, rather than a “pleasure-loving” item like coffee or perfume.

The research report led by Auburn University stated, “Product categories that are highly hedonic are ill-suited for substitution offers altogether, as our results show that demand specificity among hedonic consumers neutralizes substitution efficacy.”

The researchers cited the potential benefits of using artificial intelligence to help find optimal substitutes in out-of-stock situations, citing Walmart’s related efforts. Tapping their suppliers’ consumer insights to improve substitute options was another suggestion.

Future research is expected to explore how customers react to being referred to another nearby store or offering home delivery for an out-of-stock item. Researchers also plan to look into how shopper input can inform the substitute process in an out-of-stock situation.

Analysis from the Baymard Institute, the web research firm, finds asking consumers to select potential substitutes at the initial online ordering step on an item-by-item basis to be overly “tedious and time-consuming process,” sometimes leading the shopper to abandon BOPIS rather than risk getting undesired substitute items.

Suggestions include preemptively asking users to select a substitution only for items at risk of being out of stock, although this requires a real-time or close to real-time view of inventory stock.

Another possible solution is to integrate a substitution approval post-checkout list. Baymard Institute also suggested offering ways to select substitutes for certain items as well as an option for no substitutions.

Some stores contact users during the physical shopping process to alert them if an item is unavailable and gain approval for a replacement, although seeking customer feedback faces time constraints. Walmart writes on its website, “If your ordered item isn’t available, we’ll send you an email and offer a similar item. There is a limited amount of time to select your substitution. The email will give you a timeframe to accept or decline the alternate item.”

Another challenge is that the substitute item may have a higher price than one initially requested, presenting an unwelcome surprise for the customer.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can retailers improve substitution selections in the BOPIS process? Where in the process do you see the most potential to improve the substitution process?

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"Why not use push notifications to alert customers of out-of-stock items? Or a text message?"

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23 Comments on "BOPIS substitution processes need work"

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Neil Saunders

I think it’s kind of obvious that there is a big difference between substituting a bottle of ketchup and substituting an outfit. As for BOPIS, the ideal is that stock shown online and stock in-store is aligned so there should not be any substitutions. On the occasion that something is not available, customers should be alerted and given options long before they make their way to the store to pick up their orders.

Bob Amster

One answer is that there is no substitute for real-time on-hand availability and item reservation-and-release. It is not good PR or UX to post an item on one’s website that is not available without indicating that the item is out of stock. When the customer sees that an item is not available, the customer can make a decision.

Rick Moss

Agree, Bob. When store inventory is low — as it was during the height of the pandemic — the substitutions routine from Amazon/Whole Foods was out of control. We would get a flurry of text messages from the shopper hoping for instantaneous responses so he/she could get the order completed in timely fashion.

As the inventory situation improved, it appears they also worked to optimize the substitution options that they offer the shopper before the order is placed. For example, they save your preferred substitutions along with each regularly-ordered item in your history, so it doesn’t take the customer as long to work through the substitutions screen. And consequently, many fewer texts arrive from the store shopper during that part of the process.

Tara Kirkpatrick

It’s interesting that Walmart sends an email. As the retailer continues to prioritize its mobile app as the core channel in the customer buying journey, why not use push notifications to alert customers of out-of-stock items? Or a text message? These are more real-time communication channels than e-mail. Plus, there are other benefits to the retailer when they can get customers to opt in to push notifications.

Bob Amster

Because, that makes for a less “frictionless” process that inserts additional time and interactivity into the process.

Brad Halverson

Spot on. Email as the primary alert to customers is just adding 24 hours to response time, and delaying an order. If the customer/shopper has a follow-up question, add another 24 hours, thus increasing customer frustration. Push notifications, texts, calls and in-app notices are the quickest way to confirm orders and ship.

David Spear

Stores should absolutely give the consumer a text/call when there is an out-of-stock. Far fewer negative experiences ought to arise with this procedure, and it should be managed in near real-time. Email is a non-starter. However when there is no alerting and a store substitutes a higher priced item for the original, that’s when negative comments start flowing in.

Gary Sankary

This is complicated, as the study found that different customers have different expectations about substitutions. The best way to handle out-of-stocks is to focus on the customer. One approach that seems to work is to ask them what they would like to substitute for. Walmart and others do this, and I think it works OK.

What’s important here is when a retailer has to make a substitution, they need to make sure that they give the customer something more valuable than what they initially requested, if possible. And, I would argue not to charge them for the upsell. Think of it as an investment in keeping a customer.

Ananda Chakravarty

Substitution affects two sets of products – those the customer cares about, usually familiar or favorite brands, and those that don’t matter. Smart retailers will treat those favorite brands as sacrosanct – because that’s where customers will be disappointed or throw a fit when expectations are not met. Differentiating by customer would be challenging, but when substituting, a simple piece of data such as market brand value might allow the option of offering different sizes of the favorite brand or losing business. BOPIS continues to be refined, and retailers’ first human contact makes the real first impression.

Ken Lonyai

Each individual has different levels of comfort with substitutions and it isn’t category specific. The obvious choice, when reasonable, is to follow a model like Instacart uses that enables the consumer to select substitution items (based on suggested similar items) or no substitutions at all, on a per item basis. It’s in the moment of shopping, doesn’t potentially cause delays waiting for a shopper to respond to a text/email, and doesn’t create unhappiness with unauthorized substitution choices.

Ron Margulis

As the shopper shares more details about her shopping behavior, the e-commerce systems at most retailers can better understand what to do and, more importantly, what not to do with substitutions. The challenge is that most retailers are still on defense with out-of-stocks and don’t dedicate the time or resources to analyzing that collected data and translating it into actionable information. It’s all about expectations. And today’s shoppers have been trained by Amazon to have very high expectations.

Shep Hyken

With the technology available to track inventory levels, the ability to inform the customer of an item that is out-of-stock – with an alternative suggestion – is a no-brainer. Items like ketchup are easy. Even tough items mentioned in the article can have good suggestions. The goal is to keep the customer on your website – and in your store – versus them shopping for the out-of-stock items elsewhere.

Kathleen Fischer

It depends on the retailer, the item, and the value a customer places on a particular brand or type. Some items have a natural substitute such as a different size or packaging type. But for others, it becomes much more difficult and requires customer input to choose the preferred substitute, if there even is one. The key is to communicate with the customer as early as possible so expectations can be managed.

Gene Detroyer

Whole Foods gives the shopper the choice of which item may be substituted, or none at all. They also note when ordering which items are not available.

Considering the tools that exist today, that may be the best we can hope for. The answer is real-time inventory control. As long as the pick is off the shelf, that may be impossible.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Time-sensitive or last-minute requests are stressors. Better to offer customers a yes/no option for substitutes during the order process.

Brian Delp
3 months 7 days ago

Inventory accuracy is the real problem. The need for substitutions is just a symptom. Obviously real-time data from in-store won’t be able to account for product sitting in other customers’ physical carts, but there is definitely room for improvement in the information presented to customers online initially, then substitutions can be selected at the time of ordering.

Doug Garnett

I think the critical question here is, can retailers improve out-of-stock substitutions?

This is a miserably difficult process. Ideally, the customer wants full control. Yet the customer also doesn’t want to have to be available. So I don’t think a text or call approach will improve anything.

At core, the problem is that online inventory and grocery just don’t work – certainly not unless there’s an investment of far more money than BOPIS justifies.

Perhaps one good option would be to refuse to substitute anything and send the customer, just before pickup, a list of what they won’t be getting. Clean and simple, direct and puts control in customer hands.

Perhaps another option is to have two or three approaches (we substitute for you, we text you and you have two minutes to reply, or we do no substitutes and supply you a list).

One key to remember is that while offering customer choice seems good, it often leads to higher dissatisfaction. So tremendous care needs to be taken.

David Mascitto

The real issue here is not how or when to substitute an item and with what. The root of the problem is inventory accuracy, both in-store and online. Retailers that need to substitute don’t have true real-time inventory visibility on their websites and (if they’re fulfilling from the store) don’t have inventory accuracy at the store level. This is what causes disappointments. Fixing inventory accuracy in the store means performing inventory receiving and counting when new stock arrives, and tracking it with Store Inventory Management systems and RFID. At the e-commerce level, it means integrating directly with WMS/POS/ERP systems that feed inventory data to the website with APIs (by way of the OMS) as inventory is consumed. Substitutes are a Band-Aid solution.

Joel Rubinson

Product substitutions disrupt brand loyalties and you cannot generalize across all shoppers. I had created a shopping styles segmentation that had segments like brand planners, product planners (generic, OK), system beaters, and deal sensitive. The same person did not have the same shopping style across all categories, nor did any category have only one type of shopper. Product substitutions will upset a percent of shoppers in ANY category … the percent will vary, but who wants to alienate any shoppers?

Oliver Guy

When I ask consumers about issues with online grocery, the 2 biggest gripes are accuracy of search — getting seemingly random results from an apparently straight forward search; and substitutions.

Substitution accuracy improves with context. For example, if you know what the consumer is trying to achieve — the recipe or other need they are trying to fulfill — the better the chance of creating a good substitution.

AI could be better applied and solicit feedback regarding inappropriate substitutions — and offering a benefit for doing so — like free next time. Gathering information about why it was unsuitable — for example, because the consumer was following a recipe could be useful to improve things.

Brad Halverson

Until tech and retail allows customers to see real-time inventory levels and alternatives while the shoppers navigate the picking process, the best options are personalization tools like advanced item substitution preferences, ML, and real-time notices in-app, push notifications, texting, calls.

There are also immediate opportunities to make app UX improvements by ensuring the customer can adjust orders at every step with hassle — while being made, while being filled and while ready for pick-up.

Andrew Casey

People understand OOS, even on ad items, but this is 2022 and we haven’t figured out how to let the customer make choices during selection rather than experiencing a gotcha on delivery. Doing substitutions after checkout is letting the customers check out, start towards the parking lot with their purchases and then stopping them at the door to remove some items and refund their money. Computers should update inventory immediately when the order is finalized rather than waiting to do it when it is picked for delivery to insure what a customer thinks they bought is what will arrive.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

The keys are notification AND compensation. Consumers need to know when their selection is not available. The system needs to inform at the time of choosing, not at the time of picking. Plus, out of stock products need to be replaced by products at a lower price or no cost to the customer.

"Why not use push notifications to alert customers of out-of-stock items? Or a text message?"

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