There’s a lot of discussion about what the “new normal” will look like, and if what we’re seeing right now is any indication, it won’t necessarily be an easy run for retail.

COVID-19 caused a swell in online buying, and that was a boon for retailers with an online presence. The higher number of online sales helped offset the lower number of in-store sales. With a higher number of customers buying online, we have a new crop of buyers who don’t understand how third-party platforms (i.e., Amazon, Reverb, eBay) work. Some of them don’t understand how basic online retail works. This may change how we have to approach customer service for the online market.

All online retailers have some sort of established return policy. Many online retailers allow 30 days for a return, since this is consistent with Amazon’s requirement, and eBay’s standard for being a Top Seller. With a 30-day
return policy, the basic idea is, if you have any kind of an issue with your purchase, notify the seller within 30 days, and a return process gets started. After 30 days, most retailers (and Amazon and eBay) will tell the buyer that they’ve waited too long to make a claim, and that’s reasonable. If you’ve really got an issue with what you bought, you’ll contact the seller within a month, right?

We’re now having online customers request returns more than 30 days after buying an item. One buyer bought a somewhat complicated $179 pedal on eBay, and five weeks after it was delivered, wrote us to say it was defective. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, he did spend two paragraphs explaining how he couldn’t figure out how to operate it, and when he finally decided it was too complicated for him to operate, that meant it was defective. eBay doesn’t require us to take it back after 30 days, and Paypal doesn’t require us to operate outside eBay’s guidelines, so what should a retailer do in a case like this? Go ahead and discuss this question in your stores, because you’ll be running into it.

Another different thing we’ve seen recently is the “I didn’t receive it, even though the purchase order (PO) says it was delivered” complaint. This has happened several times since virus-related online sales began to blossom. Usually, this has happened on Amazon, when an Amazon customer requests a refund because they say they didn’t get the product. The tracking number shows it was delivered, but they still say they didn’t get it. We’ve seen Amazon refund the customer for the purchase, but they did it out of their own pocket, not out of ours. So far, that’s been the case.

The most interesting “I didn’t receive it, even though the PO says it was delivered” refund request was this: An Amazon buyer ordered some strings, and they were shipped the same day, May 23, from Mississippi. The package was marked as delivered, at the correct address, on May 25, in Arizona. Mississippi to Arizona in two days is pretty dang swift delivery, I’d say. On July 30, more than 60 days after delivery, the buyer requested a refund, saying they didn’t receive the product. I sent a screenshot of the post office delivery record, and a note suggesting they contact their local post office. No word yet on how Amazon addressed that one.

I’m expecting more and more buyers to experience late buyer’s remorse when their stimulus money is gone, and their higher-than-usual unemployment checks end. How this will all shake out I don’t know — it’s too early to tell — but I suspect our customer service departments (that’s you and me) will have to decide how they want to address these late refund requests.

My approach up until now has been pretty simple. Have a problem? Let me know inside 30 days, and I’ll move heaven and earth to make everything as it should be. No fuss, no problem, I’ll make it all A-OK and okey dokey for the buyer. That’s only right. But at some point, the buyer has to bear some responsibility for letting us know if something is amiss, and letting us know in a timely manner. I’ve always thought 30 days was enough time for getting that done.

There are going to be a lot of new moving parts for the new normal, too. I suspect the day of putting an item online, selling it, shipping it and banking the money is, for the most part, over. Adios, good old days. We’d better have folks manning the phones and inboxes who have patience and a kind voice. Buyers now need a lot more hand-holding than they did a year ago. It was hard enough describing a guitar’s tone (a highly subjective subject) to an experienced online buyer. It’s way harder answering some of the questions we are seeing now from the newer online buyers. “Does the guitar have vibe?” has been my favorite question so far.

Most certainly, part of the new norm will be this: Every store will need an online sales component in order to remain viable. Selling online is today’s equivalent of having a business phone, and while some stores may get by for a while without online sales, I can’t see that being possible very far into the future. If you own a store, and you think you can maintain your past level of sales without an online sales avenue, consider this:

Many of your old customers no longer feel safe getting out of the house and going to a public store. They’ll go to the grocery and the pharmacy, and they’ll buy gas for the car, but they aren’t comfortable doing it. When they need strings or cork grease or whatever, and the choice is to (1) buy online and get the item tomorrow or the next day, or (2) drive to your store, make human contact, and possibly contract a virus, a lot of people are going to opt for (1). The only way to keep their business is to sell online.

Of course, I could be wrong on all of this. In a few months, we may be right back to where we were in February, selling furiously and seeing our all our usual customers in person. That could happen, but I suspect that after months of creating a no-virus atmosphere for themselves, many customers aren’t going to accept the old normal as a safe way to do business. They will still be working at home, or just staying at home, having limited human contact, and relying on the internet to bring them what they need.

If you’re doing online sales, take some time this week to think over how to handle the new crop of novice online buyers. The usual approach to good customer service may require some new standards going forward. If you’re not doing online sales, either get with the program, or plan to sell your business, while it still has value, to someone who will stay current. For good or ill, the times they are a changing.

Happy trails.

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