Why Overstock Is Leaning on Text Messaging Outreach to Keep Up With Pandemic Demand

The online furniture warehouse has sent 4.5 million in the past 30 days

Overstock has doubled down on SMS outreach amid the pandemic. Getty Images
Headshot of Patrick Kulp

As the coronavirus pandemic first shut down physical stores in March and prompted Americans to invest in comfortable furniture for quarantine, Overstock found itself with a flood of demand that overwhelmed its customer care staff.

In the months since, the online furniture giant has scaled up its outreach efforts by shifting much of the burden of its marketing and customer service efforts to text messaging and automation. Using a messaging platform called Quiq, the ecommerce brand has sent out around 4.5 million outbound texts in the past 30 days alone and received about 20,000 customer queries or responses, 3,000 of which were handled by a chatbot called Chloe.

Overstock’s revamped strategy comes as brands are seeing a spike in email, SMS and push messaging performance amid the Covid-19 pandemic, much of it driven by automation. A report last week from Omnisend pointed to a 239% year-over-year lift in SMS messages sent by 50,000 global brands in the second quarter of the year.

“I see messaging as a win-win—a win for the customer and a win for Overstock,” said Jimmy Budnik, vice president of customer care at Overstock. “The customer gets a simpler experience, native to the technology they are most comfortable with, while Overstock gets the benefit of greater agent efficiency through asynchronous communication.”

Even before the pandemic, however, Overstock had been emphasizing SMS as a bigger part of its marketing and customer support strategy as the company saw a growing portion of sales and traffic coming from mobile versus desktop. While surveys previously showed that Americans were slow to accept the idea of buying big-ticket items like furniture from their mobile devices, that number has begun to tick upward in more recent years.

Budnik said mobile sales have gone from below 40% to above 50% of the company’s total haul in the past two years, and mobile traffic overall has grown 150% in the past year. SMS in particular has been a boon over on-site chat functions because it allows customers to continue a conversation at their own pace, Budnik said.

“Our focus is on speaking to our customers in the channels that are most convenient to them, and that’s increasing mobile,” Budnik said. “Starting from our earliest rollout of the messaging capability with our messaging partner Quiq, we consistently saw open rates as high as 98%.  For comparison, typical email open rates are just a fraction of that. Customers seem to prefer this mode of communication, assuming that the content and timing is highly relevant.”

Examples of Overstock’s SMS strategy in action.Overstock

The company has also shifted a larger portion of its traffic to automated sources, like Chloe, using channel optimization to direct customers toward the most productive outlet for their query or response. While humans ultimately manage the conversations with customers, the performance stats of bots and other automated channels have been getting better relative to their human counterparts, according to Budnik.

Budnik said the next big step for Overstock’s strategy is to find more ways to combine communication channels, where an agent may be on a phone call with a customer while using a messaging service to share relevant information at the same time.

“This is consistent with how customers interact with each other on a daily basis,” Budnik said. “The more we can integrate with the natural habits of customers, the greater the expected adoption.”

@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.