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COVID-19 and the comeback of phone orders: How retail can help communities shelter in place

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If you are looking for a measure of how complicated retail is in the age of coronavirus, consider that retailers are not only grasping at technological solutions of the future, but also reaching back for practical practices from the past. 

Telephone orders are on the rise. 

Yes, it’s back — the move that conjures up images of 1960s consumers shopping from massive department store catalogs or racing to the phone in later decades to “order before midnight tonight” from late-night television ads featuring all-in-one kitchen gadgets.

Large retailers like Canadian Tire with more than $10 billion in annual revenue and the Container Store, which approaches $1 billion in yearly sales, along with Utah-based SummerWinds Garden Centers and smaller outfits like the running shoe store in Alabama and the gift shop in Missouri have turned to the telephone to serve customers’ needs.

What you need to know
  • Retailers big and small are turning to taking phone orders as they seek creative ways to serve customers sheltering at home.
  • Phone orders open up new curbside pickup and delivery options for retailers who’ve temporarily closed their brick-and-mortar stores and are just now building an online presence. They also help larger retailers struggling to handle a surge in demand.
  • Order by phone has the potential to provide a huge benefit to customers who are not accustomed to, or comfortable with, ordering online — meaning especially vulnerable people have a way to get what they need in an efficient way.

The reasons retailers are calling on the trusty telephone as a sales channel vary, but they all have to do with COVID-19 and its dramatic effect on running a business. All but essential businesses have had to close their brick-and-mortar stores to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Phone orders can ease unmanageable surge in ecommerce shopping

With in-store shopping no longer an option, ecommerce sales have skyrocketed — sales are up 85% since the end of February, according to Signifyd’s Ecommerce Pulse data. With the sudden shift in shopping mix, some retailers have found themselves with more ecommerce traffic than their sites can efficiently handle.

Other retailers, particularly those that have operated for years on their towns’ main streets, never built an ecommerce presence. Now they are open for curbside delivery, but they need a way for customers to place orders. The telephone is a logical channel.

“This is all uncharted territory because this is the first time we’ve done it,” Matt Sandbothe, co-owner of Initially Yours, a gift shop in Jefferson City, Missouri, told the town’s News Gazette. “In the past, we’ve delivered stuff or we’ve offered to ship things and that’s always been available, but this is more detailed service because of what’s going on.”

Whatever the reason retailers are turning to phone orders, the ability to call in an order is a godsend for some in the midst of coronavirus-inspired stay-at-home orders. While it is true that we are decades into the ecommerce era, not everyone has embraced the idea of shopping online.

A subset of older consumers, for instance, never saw the appeal and remain somewhat unfamiliar and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with the practice of ordering online. And, of course, because COVID-19 strikes older people particularly severely, they are among those who more than others need to stay home in order to stay healthy. 

Stories abound about grassroots efforts organized to marshal volunteers who buy groceries and other necessities for the elderly, so the elderly can effectively shelter in place. And while the efforts are vital and noble, they are complicated by the need for older residents to exchange cash or some form of payment with the volunteer organizations who are buying the groceries and filling the prescriptions. 

How much easier and better for all concerned if the elderly residents could place their own orders by phone and pay by credit card. And while such arrangements might be possible at some neighborhood, independent groceries, phone ordering doesn’t appear to be widespread at major supermarket chains.

But of course, with new ordering and fulfillment schemes come new challenges. Are supermarkets prepared for an influx of telephone orders? The major chains do have call centers. Could some of that capacity be reassigned to take what is likely to be a relatively modest number of telephone orders?

What about fulfillment — how does an order handled at a call center get translated into bags of groceries on the way to a neighborhood home? Major supermarket chains either offer delivery or work with delivery services, such as Instacart. Could phoned-in orders simply be added to the online ordering system for either delivery or curbside pickup?

New phone ordering options bring new challenges

What about the potential for fraud and consumer abuse? A phone order comes with far fewer digital signals than a grocery order placed on a shopping site or app. The phone order comes with no identifying signals from the device used or the IP address. A curbside order doesn’t even include a delivery address, which unlocks a number of data points that can help verify identity. 

Fraud and consumer abuse protection is available. In the case of Signifyd, that protection comes with a financial guarantee that shifts the risk from the merchant to Signifyd. Furthermore, Signifyd’s Commerce Network gathers transaction data from thousands of merchants selling in more than 100 countries.

 The breadth of that network means that 97% of purchases made online are made by consumers that Signifyd has seen somewhere on its network before. The same data would allow Signifyd to recognize some aspects of the telephone transaction, meaning its machine-learning system could instantly distinguish between a fraudulent and a legitimate transaction. 

There is wide agreement that commerce and shopping is going to be very different, even after non-essential retailers are allowed to reopen brick-and-mortar stores and the world begins its journey back to a new post-virus normal. There is no reason commerce and shopping can’t be very different, but better.

Retailers who are able to go back to the future and incorporate a phone ordering system into their omnichannel experiences could well open an untapped market that would continue to rely on telephone ordering even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted. 

It’s an innovative approach that would benefit both a retailer’s bottom line and its community. 

Photo by Getty Images

Need help managing telephone orders? We’re happy to talk you through it.

Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike is the head of storytelling at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at [email protected].