In my new role at Business Sweden, I get to do something I love– supporting e-commerce companies in their global expansion. Through all the ups and downs, challenges, and celebrations, I am aware that running an e-commerce company is an emotional roller coaster. So being able to support companies on that journey feels almost like a duty rather than a job. It is something I have to do and feel passionate about. And if me sharing my experiences, good and bad, can support any company in succeeding, that is fantastic!
One month into my first expat experience and already 48 home deliveries later, I feel confident enough to write a few lines about my experience with e-commerce in the US.
More than 10 items never delivered all at once
We live on a dead-end street so there is no point in walking down our street unless you are visiting one of the houses, and there are only about 30 of them in a quiet residential area in Connecticut. Our realtor assured this was a calm and safe street for dogs and children where they could run around safely and play. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I do not think she had a good view of the logistics patterns when she made those promises. Without exception, there is a delivery truck on our street every time I look out the window. It is primarily the usual suspects in FedEx, UPS, or DHL, and the occasional local company that I am not previously familiar with. A couple of times a week I see a tiny white car from the local post-service go by, but it only stops at the classic American mailbox for a second before moving on. The larger packages come with the other carriers.
The first thing that struck me was that an order of 10 products is never delivered all at once! Items are delivered to the entrance now and then throughout the day in multiple different deliveries and often with a lot of air inside each package. Dropshipping or in case, non-consolidated warehousing feels like the standard.
Convenience is everything
Take a short time to think about what you need when ordering things for a kitchen. Quite many different things like frying pans, a toaster, knives, pots, cutting boards, silverware, lunch boxes, and a thousand other things. And yes, I know there are starter packs, but not everything is in one starter pack.
Some things are sent together, and some things are sent one by one. However, when you have ONE potato peeler inside a shoe sized box on your porch, you really start wondering about the environmental impact of that item... but also the profitability for Amazon and the potato peeler brand. Unfortunately, the big e-commerce platforms in the US seem to be far away from the sustainability thinking of their Nordic counterparts.. Convenience (at least pre-purchase) is everything.
The impact on physical stores
Adapters for European electrical outlets seem to be an ever-present need in our home. Razors, iPads, computers, mobile phones, electric toothbrushes, and pretty much everything else you use on an everyday or occasional basis now rely on them. It felt like such a stupid product to order online so buying it in the nearest town was the natural option, but the dialogue went something like this:
- Hi, do you have adapters for European devices in the US?
- Whaaat are you kidding? That you gotta get at Amazon… (*very annoyed look*)
Walking out I almost felt a little ashamed for asking such a dumb question in an electronic hardware store larger than most stores in Sweden. Stupid me. E-commerce has truly changed physical retail here.
Returns feel hostile but there are exceptions
However, when it comes to returns, it seems items must be handed in at a physical store of some sort. And order number is not enough to make a return. You need to do a pre-filled return form online and then show the barcode to the cashier at the return desk. And you definitely cannot return an opened box. Returns feel hostile.
But of course, there is always an exception, one supplier delivered broken glasses and plates. I took photos and documented this and contacted customer service. I was positively surprised when the answer was that she did not even need to see any pictures, I was instructed to give away broken items and that replacement products were already on their way to my home. The experience was great. Although I still wonder who would benefit from pieces of a plate.
Service is functional – not pleasant
Customer service via email is hopeless. Phone lines have long waiting times. Chat bots are everywhere and despite their limitations they are probably the best way to contact customer service. I do not like it. I feel ridiculous talking to a stuffed Teddy bear avatar about my needs. I am just not sure his experience in the category I am browsing will suffice. Nor do I like his snotty suggestion on what I should say. Chat bots are still some ways off from passing the Turing test and I want to chat to a real person. But to be honest, quite often the Teddy bear or one of his avatar colleagues manage to provide the information I need. Service is functional, not pleasant.
Some things in the customer experience are just not there. My sense is that many rely on too many third parties in their value chain to provide a good experience. And the Nordics have gotten further in digital solutions related to delivery and returns, while on average prioritising customer service to a larger extent.
However, the US beats the Nordics on fast at-home deliveries and high delivery accuracy. Only one of our deliveries has been lost, strangely enough, three 96-gallon bins disappeared. Apart from that everything has arrived within a couple of days and most of the time already the next day. The ever-present nature of the delivery trucks makes me think of when you land with an airplane on a clear day near a big city and see all the cars like small ants, it almost does not seem real. Like I am part of the film The Truman Show.
When the large electronic store in town refers to an e-commerce competitor as the only place to buy what I am looking for - and when you find out that your favourite local grocery store, Whole Foods, with a large organic and vegetarian selection, is owned by Amazon, you realise that the world is a bit upside down compared to what I am used to.
Despite a couple of bad experiences and right or wrong, so far, e-commerce rules in the US. It is hardly worth going to a store, and even when you do, the store staff refers you to go back home and open your laptop. Wide assortment and strong logistics somehow beat a relatively poor post-purchase experience.