Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Online retailer Takealot told South Africans in a lavish television advertising campaign: "We’ve got Christmas covered".

But for the thousands of people who did not receive their orders by Christmas Day‚ it turned out to be the season of "wait a lot". And they were not impressed.

"Absolutely pathetic customer service‚" wrote Ronelle Singh on the retailer’s Facebook page. "I placed an order and paid additional delivery to receive my item on Christmas Eve — a week later and still no delivery after numerous follow-up calls to them‚ and no feedback…"

"Takealot’s service delivery was beyond appalling this Christmas!" wrote Kirsten Coutsoudis. "You weren’t able to deliver my Christmas presents by the promised dates‚ sent half packages‚ managers don’t call back when they say they will…"

But Takealot’s chief marketing officer Julie-Anne Walsh rejects the suggestion that the company over-promised and under-delivered‚ saying that "can’t be statistically validated and is not accurate".

Asked to quantify Takealot’s late deliveries‚ Walsh would say only that it was "a single-digit percentage of total orders" — the same as in previous years.

She gave the number of successful orders — not total orders — processed in November and December as "more than 650,000".

I think it is safe to assume that "single digit" percentage of late orders was somewhere between 5% and 9%‚ or the company would surely have said "less than 5%"‚ so I am going to go with 7.5%.

That puts the number of late deliveries at 48,750‚ and given that the total order number would have been far higher than 650 000‚ let’s round that up to 50,000 Takelot orders that were not fulfilled.

eCommerce analyst Arthur Goldstuck‚ who heads the research company World Wide Worx‚ said it was "generally agreed" that the acceptable late delivery rate was "a matter of a fraction of a percent rather than a percent or more".

Shop anything you can imagine. With millions of products delivered wherever you are, Takealot.com has Christmas covered. #SantasBigBreak

"A single-digit percentage of late deliveries would be disastrous‚" he said. "Even if it was 1% — more than 6,500 orders in this case — it could turn into a public relations fiasco for any brand in the age of social media."

Did Black Friday — the US retail phenomenon enthusiastically embraced by South Africans a month before Christmas — have anything to do with all those late Takealot deliveries?

Not according to Walsh. So what then?

"Numerous issues can cause a late delivery‚" Walsh said‚ "some within our control and some unfortunately that are out of our control‚ like a supplier letting us down or stock that we thought we had no longer being available in our warehouse‚ due to shrinkage‚ etcetera.

"We do‚ however‚ make every effort to communicate changes in delivery dates to our customers as soon as possible and will credit and refund anyone who deems the revised date to be unacceptable."

Maria Thomas felt Takealot should go a step further.

"Cut your losses and do the right thing‚" she suggested. "Send each customer whose delivery was delayed a discount voucher as a form of apology."

Walsh responded: "Given the variables at play in any given customer order‚ we deal with every order on an individual basis‚" she said.

"So there is no blanket comment or compensation we can give for all [late] orders."

Goldstuck sees it differently.

"In the US in 2013‚ bad weather and poor anticipation of an e-commerce surge led to more than 2-million packages arriving after Christmas‚ which was a disaster for the industry‚ and most major retailers had to revise their logistics and renegotiate service levels with courier services‚" Goldstuck said.

"That year‚ Amazon refunded delivery fees and gave gift cards — local retailers need to take a similar approach."

The lead-up to Christmas was the single most "sensitive" period of the year in terms of managing and meeting consumer expectations of e-commerce‚ Goldstuck said.

"It is critical that an online site communicates clearly whether items are in stock‚ and what delivery time can be anticipated.

"The moment the company shifts the goalposts after accepting someone’s payment‚ it is not only one the back foot‚ but should compensate the customer.

"Glib responses are not enough — transparent and continuous communication becomes critical. That didn’t appear to happen here."

Goldstuck said SA’s online retailers needed to tackle "poor co-operation" from some courier companies. "We are hearing stories of warehouses clogged up because a major courier service closed shop at 1pm on December 24 and only opened again five days later."

Online retail finally came fully into itself this holiday season and now exceeds 1% of all retail sales in SA‚ and is growing exponentially‚ said Steven Ambrose‚ CEO of local technology research firm Strategy.

"This places huge strain on the systems‚ processes‚ and partners‚ for any online retailer.

"Overall‚ the South African retailers are performing well and appear to be within internationally acceptable limits for delivery."

* If you did not receive your Takealot order in time‚ the fastest way to reach the company was via its help page.

"Contacting us here captures all the details we need to address your individual query. It’s sent straight to the right team within the business who can help as quickly as possible and is much more direct than a phone call."

Meanwhile, on the returns front, Ash Govender had to wait more than three weeks for a refund for four items he returned to Takealot via courier.

"The warehouse confirmed receipt of each item‚ but I still haven’t received my R1,126 refund‚ but they have just brushed off my e-mailed queries and keep closing my requests.

"Then‚ when I phone their 087 number‚ I have to speak to a different person each time‚ which means that I spend half an hour on the phone and then never hear back…."

According to Walsh, the problem arose from the fact that two of the items were scheduled for collection by the courier on December 5‚ and another two the following day.

The first courier agent told Govender it would be fine for him to take the lot‚ which led to all four returns being logged as cancelled.

"The refund has been processed by our finance team and should reflect within the next five working days‚" Walsh said.

"We have taken the complaint seriously and have changed internal processes to accommodate this type of query effectively in future."

Good to know‚ because while Govender was on the phone to an apologetic Takealot representative‚ giving him the good news about his refund‚ he received yet another e-mail from a Takealot agent claiming that his return had been cancelled and no refund was due.

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