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‘White glove' delivery practices vary

Heath E. Combs -- Furniture Today, June 13, 2013

A worker at Cory 1st ChoiceA worker at Cory 1st Choice Home Delivery prepares a sofa for delivery to a home. The company uncrates product and checks for scratches, scuff marks, tears and dirt. It does minor repairs like filling in scratches and polishing scuff marks, and cleans all products before delivery.
HIGH POINT - Retailers who sell via e-commerce have only one point of physical contact with their consumers: product delivery.
     But it has been difficult to standardize exactly what consumers and online retailers should expect from delivery - especially when it comes to premium services like white glove, which refers to the special handling require for items that can't be sent by UPS or FedEx. That could include sofas, large case goods or delicate items with glass or marble.
     Companies may, depending on retailer strategy, offer free front door delivery for a sofa purchase with items in original packaging, or could offer delivery to a room and packaging removal for an up charge of, say, $99.
     Some retailers leave specialized delivery to their product suppliers, which may ship on their own or other trucks to local services that handle "last mile" - the last leg of shipping to homes. Others contract, for a premium, with specialized carriers to perform a range of tasks, from tracking and inspection to repackaging and accountability during delivery if damages occur.
     "The customer wants it to be as smooth and seamless as UPS or FedEx. And that's what a retailer would like too," said Niraj Shah, CEO and co-founder of online retail giant Wayfair. "The better you make it for a consumer, the more likely they are to purchase."
     A consumer who has a bad delivery experience probably won't buy again from that same website, said Keith Hewitt, president and CEO of specialized carrier HEP Direct. He said that to maintain brand loyalty, retailers should use "professional organizations" for white glove delivery.
     In the early-to-mid-2000s, as white glove delivery developed, service was localized and few providers could offer nationwide service, Hewitt said. This led to an agent based model of service reliant on local moving and delivery companies that didn't specialize in furniture, he said, which in turn led to varying quality and service.
     Alternatively, HEP and some other providers chose to address white glove model by creating a specialized trucking infrastructure - an asset-based model - from operating warehouse hubs to having dedicated drivers and delivery professionals.
     A goal was addressing problems that agent models had due multiple product handling points and accountability issues. It was also to make sure consumers received consistently professional delivery and setup service.
     Dedicating capital to home delivery and consistent customer service is a priority for specialized carriers since it represents the core of their businesses, according to Will O'Shea, chief sales and marketing officer at asset based specialized carrier 3PD. He said the company has invested $17 million in technology to support the specialized service in the past six years.
     Another differentiator for white glove delivery service is information tracking - providing a single point of contact where consumers can monitor the progress of shipments, said Aimee Boozer, vice president of specialized carrier Sun Delivery.
     "They don't want to be left in the dark. They don't want to be the person calling you to find out where their delivery is and when it's going to arrive," Boozer said.
     Tracking doesn't end at delivery. For example, 3PD follows up by surveying delivery customers on their satisfaction with the experience, asking whether they'd be willing to use the same team again.
     Product sources, meanwhile, are increasing their roles in last mile delivery by recommending specialized carriers to e-commerce channels.
     As e-commerce players developed more sophisticated merchandising and presentation, and a better online shopping experience, some suppliers saw the channel was growing and began taking more ownership in it, HEP's Hewitt said. They began worrying more about product handling was and suggested white glove services for some items.
     Manufacturer and importer Home Meridian's Right 2 Home e-commerce division has a policy for all white glove service. It must meet "platinum" guidelines - delivery with two-person teams, blanket wrapping of product, setup in the home, and resolution of issues such as damages before leaving the home, said Kevin Walker, president.
     "If we can bring some education to the (retailer) customer, then we're going to be able to create an environment where people aren't chasing the cheapest rate in a freight company with high damage rates and (consumers) are dissatisfied," Walker said.

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