Brand Experience Breakdown: What DTC Brands Can Learn from Away’s First-ever Sale

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles that highlight elements of a consumer’s ecommerce shopping experience.

I’ve been consumed by wanderlust since the first time I had the opportunity to travel on my own. But once I entered the workforce, my travel quickly changed from backpacking around Europe to overnight trips for partner meetings. 

After a few years of work travel under my belt, I knew it was time to upgrade my airport presence. And Away was the first (and only) luggage company I considered. 

The product offers a great value. With butter-smooth wheels, a rechargeable battery port, and a hardshell case that defies physics (it honestly fits more than I ever thought was possible)—I was hooked. I got my first carry-on two years ago and I’ve been wanting to expand my collection ever since.

When I received a very simple email from Away with the subject line, “We’ve never done this before…,” I immediately opened it. 

To my surprise (and delight), Away announced its first sale with products up to 50 percent off. While I definitely don’t have any major travel plans in the immediate future, that didn’t matter.

I planned to round out my collection by purchasing a medium and large suitcase to match my and my fiance’s carry-ons. I had one of the suitcases on my wedding registry but decided the sale was worth removing it and buying two for myself instead. If we’re able to travel for our honeymoon next year, we’re going to do it in style.

Read on to learn about my experience shopping Away’s first-ever sale, how the brand handled some of the hiccups I experienced, and what other brands can learn from how Away handled these challenges.


Taking advantage of Away’s first sale

When the sale was supposed to start, I navigated to Away’s website to find a placeholder message saying “We’re getting the site ready for something big.”

It seemed like Away’s website may have been experiencing heavy traffic due to such high demand since I kept getting this error message—it was like déjà vu to the time I tried to buy Taylor Swift concert tickets as soon as they went on sale. 

But after several attempts to refresh, I finally got through to find an updated homepage dedicated to the sale. I was impressed by the overall branding and layout that the team at Away had designed. The products were sorted in a simple manner and they clearly catered to the traffic that was on their site for the sale.

Fearing the items I wanted were at risk of selling out, I immediately added the Medium and Large suitcases (in Navy) to my cart and began the checkout process.

I entered my shipping information and kept getting redirected back to the homepage to repeat the process over again. Eventually, I was able to get all the way to the credit card payment screen. A few times, the website timed out and I would get a “Gateway Proxy Timeout” error. I was stuck on the payment section for quite some time—occasionally, I would simply get an error stating “Order unable to transition to confirm.”

To my excitement, I eventually landed on the order confirmation page after going through this process a few more times. With the two suitcases in my cart and the correct information displayed on the screen, I eagerly pressed “Submit” and waited for the order number to appear so I could begin my celebration—but that celebration never came. 

The “Submit” button transformed into a “Please wait…” button for a while before I thought I should refresh. Once I did, I was brought back to the first page where I had to start the process all over again. But this time there was only one of the suitcases in my cart and I assumed the Medium had sold out. 

After going through the process, once again, there was no confirmation page, but when I was brought to the start, the Medium suitcase miraculously appeared in my cart once again. This same process went on for at least an hour until eventually, to my pleasure, a confirmation for two suitcases appeared on the screen with an order number. 

Feeling confident, I decided I really needed a matching weekender bag (after all, it was 50 percent off…) and went through the whole process again. This time, I never received a confirmation screen. But from chatting with others who were also shopping the sale, they told me that despite not receiving any type of confirmation, their credit card was charged.

I checked my credit card to ensure that my order actually went through and, to my surprise, I not only purchased one luggage set but three. As well as one additional weekender bag. Realizing I had more than $1,000 in pending charges, I immediately emailed the support team.

Per their suggestion, I checked Instagram and found a note that read, “if your charge was charged twice, email us and we will prioritize this.” So I waited.

Later that evening, about 12 hours after placing the (multiple) orders, I received three order confirmation emails – one right after the other – for the three separate suitcase orders. Not even two minutes after that, I received a shipping confirmation that one of the suitcase pairs was being delivered the following day. When I woke up, I had another two shipping confirmations in my inbox. 

Within three days, I had three separate shipments of suitcases—and still no confirmation on the weekender bag.

Meanwhile, I received an email back from support about my multiple orders:

While I received this email on September 11th, I received all shipments of suitcases by September 12th. Away did refund me for the duplicate orders, but they also refunded “and canceled” a set that I had already received.

On September 17th, I received an email from Away support saying my weekender bag was delayed. This was the first confirmation I had received about this order, so I was happy to get any news and I appreciated the transparency. 

Since I wasn’t planning to use the bag anytime soon, a delayed shipment wasn’t really a worry of mine, but I applaud Away for acknowledging the delay and even offering a refund for shipments arriving too late to be used for upcoming travels.

But interestingly enough, I woke up the next morning to an email saying my weekender bag had been shipped. While this was certainly a pleasant surprise, the miscommunication between support and the warehouse felt unpolished.

What DTC brands can learn from Away’s sale

One thing’s for sure: Away definitely got my attention with their sale. And not just my attention, either. The sale was covered in multiple publications and media outlets. In fact, it was pretty hard to miss.

As a direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand, Away doesn’t typically hold sales. So when they notified customers that, not only were they putting their items on sale, but they were discounting them at half off, it created quite the stir.

While many DTC companies stray from deeply discounting their products so as not to cheapen their brand, I think that Away’s sale was actually a smart move during a time where the travel industry isn’t necessarily in high demand after the impact of the pandemic. As mentioned, I wouldn’t have bought these products myself otherwise and even added an additional product that I had never planned for.

“I don’t think that running a single sale is going to have an impact on the brand in five years’ time,” said Nik Sharma, founder of Sharma Brands, in a recent Retail Brew. “If it becomes a recurring strategy for the brand, then that becomes a different story.”

I have to agree with Nik here. An “unprecedented” sale was very fitting during these “unprecedented times,” but if they were to hold sales more regularly throughout the year, I’m not sure they’d capture my attention in the same way they did with this one.

The biggest issue though, in this case, is what came after launching the sale, which seemed to be a disconnect between inventory management, site reliability and performance, shipping, and customer service. 

I’m sure Away did everything they could to prepare for the sale and the traffic that would come along with it. But when you have a brand as popular as theirs and you’re discounting your products for the first time, sometimes things go wrong. And sometimes it’s just impossible to fully prepare, especially for things that may truly be out of your control, so having a recovery plan in place before you even launch a sale is a smart move. 

While many things were likely out of the company’s control with this particular sale, here are a few things you can consider in preparation for your own future sales:

  • Ensure your website can handle larger than expected spikes in traffic – while still providing a great user experience – before you launch your sale. In their article on how to improve your ecommerce site’s speed, Visiture, an agency that specializes in end-to-end ecommerce marketing, says to consider 1) compressing images 2) reducing redirects, and 3) using a content delivery network (CDN) to increase your website speed.
  • Integrate all the touchpoints in your customer’s journey to ensure communications are consistent – even with increased demand. Use an automated marketing platform that integrates with incredible softwares across all aspects of a brand’s tech stack – like customer service, fulfillment, loyalty, and of course, ecommerce – to ensure communications are clear and consistent. By integrating these technologies into your email marketing platform, you’ll have deeper customer insights to provide an even better (and more personalized) experience across your channels.
  • Review and update email automations to provide a personalized experience. While Away was transparent on their social media channels about the issues they were facing and what customers should expect, nothing can replace that personal order confirmation after making a big purchase. Aside from tackling the communication delays, also incorporate the awesome creative branding and content you develop for your sale into your automations during the time of the sale. While this is a little touch, it would make the customer experience even more special.


My final thoughts on Away’s sale

Ecommerce sales have skyrocketed during 2020 due to the large shift to online amid the coronavirus pandemic. If you normally expect heavy traffic on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you should prepare to see even more extreme spikes this year, especially if you’re offering traditional, deep discounts.

Still, no one can prepare for everything. Especially during Cyber Weekend and the holiday season, something may go wrong, no matter how well you plan. 

Perhaps the best lesson marketers can learn from Away’s sale is the importance of having a strategy in place for if (or when) something does go wrong. Your customers will generally be forgiving if you’ve already created a trusted brand and you have an action plan to remedy the situation if something goes awry.

At the end of the day, Away came through where it mattered—they offered exceptional customer service and also displayed empathy throughout the entire process. Away didn’t pretend that everything was fine. They were honest and transparent about the issues they were having, and they made sure to do right by their customers.

When all was said and done, I received the items I ordered (plus some) and I was promptly refunded for the orders I didn’t mean to purchase. While I’ve now completed my luggage set, I would still consider buying from Away again.

Interested in more brand experience breakdowns? Find out why one new homeowner decorated with Gray Malin photography.

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