The days of old-fashioned inventory management and guaranteed long-term supply-chain reliability are mostly gone.

If we’ve learned anything in the last couple of years, it’s that change truly is the only the constant. As a result, e-commerce brands have had to re-examine all aspects of their business, their online presence, and their customer-centered strategies and tactics.

And nothing is off the table, including tactics used awkwardly or unsuccessfully now or in the past.

You know, the kind of stuff that doesn’t perform as expected because the technology needed to support it properly is tired or non-existent, or because traditional retail thinking kept it from succeeding.

We want to circle back to one of those tactics with you today. It’s one that many retailers have continued to use despite the chronic problems involved.

In today’s post (the first of two parts), we want to revisit retail pre-ordering as a means of addressing key problems that have driven e-commerce retailers crazy for quite some time.

And where vendors previously relied on pre-orders only to create hype for new product drops, now a pre-order strategy is pertinent in dealing with the supply chain issues creating havoc across our industry.

E-commerce Pre-ordering Begs a Reboot: A Key to “New Retail” Success

Retail pre-ordering is often clunky and frustrating, and certainly not problem-free.

Why?

Part of the problem is that in the case of unpaid ‘register your interest’ pre-orders, shoppers sometimes tend to view the commitment too casually.

After all, if a pre-order involves little more than signing up and providing contact details in exchange for the right to be counted among those willing to buy a product, there’s may be no sense of  true customer commitment, and certainly no strong sense of “ownership anticipation.”

When vendors require at least a partial payment or payment pre-authorization for pre-orders, shoppers must be intrinsically motivated before they’ll proceed. These alternatives require a contingent commitment from shoppers with little sense of accompanying reward that would sustain interest.

There’s also no sense of increased brand or vendor loyalty, nor any real means of creating the anticipation an interested and committed shopper should feel.

And of course, there are some shoppers who chronically abuse opportunities to get in line ahead of the crowds.

As a result, online retail brands have had to develop ways of dealing with abuse of their pre-order systems.

There are other problems associated with “normal” retail pre-orders.

Retail pre-ordering, even with full advance payment or a pre-authorization system that bills shoppers only when the desired goods arrive in the vendor’s warehouse, often falls short in addressing the issues most retailers know will arise. These include warehouse confusion, challenging order coordination and logistics, and overwhelmed customer service teams dealing with frustrated shoppers wondering where their orders are.

In fact, the customer service issues have been known to irritate pre-order customers to the point that they lose trust and refuse to buy the next time they see a pre-order button on your site.

Or worse yet, they abandon the brand completely in search of a more transparent and rewarding customer experience.

This has been an issue for online vendors for years. We can remember tales of angry shoppers who had actually pre-paid for new products and felt scammed over unfulfilled pre-orders as far back as 2009 and even earlier.

Time for that reboot...

Critical Change: Time to Alter the Nature of Pre-Ordering

The fact that a strategy as clear and obvious (at least conceptually) as pre-ordering doesn’t seem able to fulfill its potential in e-commerce retail bugs us.

Especially when it could be part of a go-to tactic to combat the degrading of supply-chain reliability in the new not-quite-post-pandemic economic reality.

If pre-orders are to work effectively and consistently for e-commerce retail brands, the pre-order process has to change in ways that serve both brand and consumer.

The truth is that brands have to change their thinking about pre-orders.

They’re going to have accept that the pre-order customer journey is fundamentally different from the normal customer journey. Customers must feel they’re still in the loop during their waiting period, and in control of their orders. This inspires trust and loyalty in pre-order customers.

Essentially, brands must be willing to work to change shopper awareness of fully paid pre-orders so that each pre-order customer has reason to feel good about:

(1) making an emotional, intellectual, and financial decision to commit to a purchase, in full knowledge that he or she will have to wait for fulfillment;

(2) actually implementing the decision by paying now to secure products for later fulfillment;

(3) accepting and trusting in brand practices and assurances as to full-featured, consistent, prompt customer service, including free self-service cancellation; and

(4) anticipating a pre-order and fulfillment experience that is psychologically and emotionally engaging, worry-free, consistent with brand and shopper values, and repeatable regularly.

The brand’s value propositions around pre-ordering should relate directly to each shopper’s sense of anticipation of the delivery of an item “ahead of the crowd” based on newness, limited stock, or true exclusivity. They can also form the bases for real personalization of pre-ordering, making it an exciting part of the customer journey.

The change in brand approach to pre-ordering should aim for the sort of shopper commitment that qualifies pre-order customers far more accurately in terms of the likelihood of conversions,  completed sales, and long-term repeat business to enhance CLV (Customer Lifetime Value).

It’s about money on the table for vendors and the refinement of their CX, brand story,  customer service, and transactional certainty for both vendors and shoppers.

In reality, any change in shopper expectations regarding the nature of pre-orders is also a brand-related change. Customers aren’t going to change their perceptions or level of excitement about pre-orders unless their favorite brands lead them to do so.

The goal is to create enough change in a brand’s pre-order value propositions that customers become willing to pay in full at the time of pre-order because they’re being offered far more than merely a place on a list or the chance to secure a product ahead of others.

As things are currently, we suspect many consumers (and many brands) often don’t even see pre-orders as a “real” part of the customer journey or the brand story.

That’s a huge mistake.

It’s about more than offering shoppers a chance to get in before the crowd. It’s about heightened anticipation that becomes part of customer experience within the brand story, and about exclusivity, reward, and the real marketability of anticipation and delayed satisfaction.

Properly executed pre-ordering can become an integral part of the shopper’s psychological and emotional buying journey with favored brands. For brands, it can become a regularly repeatable mechanism to grow revenues, client base, income streams, and year-round revenue stability.

Yes, but…how…?

We know – it sounds great, but there are some serious questions you need to think about before you can be sure you have a solution that’s technically possible, strategically sound, and consistently reliable.

That’s true – and we think we can offer you some clear guidelines, which you’ll find in Part 2 of this post.

We promise you that while adopting a new pre-ordering model might seem a bit daunting, it will more than pay for itself if you approach it from outside the box of traditional retail thinking.

Stay tuned. You’ve got this.

And we’ve got you.