Overcoming fulfilment challenges through frictionless warehousing

While the pandemic online-spending boom has undoubtedly presented opportunities for e-tailers, it’s also simultaneously created a more challenging landscape and set of even higher standards to be met. According to our research, 64% of consumers have increased the amount they buy online since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, UK online sales grew 74.4% year on year in January 2021, marking the largest rate of growth since the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. Yet, behind the scenes, these rising order volumes have only intensified pressures on e-commerce order fulfilment, increasing the need for operational speed, accuracy, and productivity.

To achieve this, more e-tailers are striving towards a ‘frictionless’ warehouse; achieving an operational process that flows naturally from initial order to final delivery with minimum stoppage. The fulfilment process needs to be as fast and efficient as possible – from picking and packing through to label generation and carrier shipment. Any delay or stoppage within this process is friction that e-tailers can’t afford, especially as rising order volumes aren’t the only challenge they’re contending with.

At the same time, customer expectations have soared. Our consumer survey, conducted to identify common pain points with the online shopping process, found that over a third (35%) would rather buy elsewhere than wait a long time for delivery, and 73% said that having to pay for returns would discourage them from buying with that retailer. Increasingly, customers are wanting more for less, and they’re not afraid of turning elsewhere if they can’t get it. And for an increasing number of e-tailers, it’s not just customer promises they can’t afford not to keep. With over half of all global e-commerce sales occurring on marketplaces, it’s not surprising that brands are trying to establish a presence on these channels. But as well as opportunity, marketplaces present huge challenges too, with strict performance metrics driving the need for seamless fulfilment processes. Failure to adhere to these can result in hefty fines and even termination of the opportunity to sell via that channel.

So, how can you ensure you’re performing on all fronts and meeting high demands while still delivering ROI? Maximising the amount of orders you can fulfil, especially on e-commerce channels, requires robust physical and digital technology to enable effective fulfilment operations in warehouses and distribution centres. And with such stringent processes and standards to meet every second counts, driving the need for a frictionless warehouse. Smart warehouse technology, flexibility and speed of data flows are all crucial to adapting to the changing landscape of customer and marketplace demands and solving fulfilment friction points.

Frictionless doesn’t have to mean wall-to-wall automation

Many businesses we work with know they need to automate to address friction points in their warehouse but don’t know where to start. It’s often perceived as daunting and cost prohibitive, and yet, you don’t need to go from zero to 100% straight away. If done incorrectly, it can be an expensive mistake to make. We find the most successful automation projects are usually those that are broken down into bitesize, affordable chunks. Consider automating the most complex and time-consuming areas of your warehouse, or those where you have higher levels of manual workforce. In tackling small parts at a time, be mindful of the bigger picture and take a holistic view across your operation.

Challenges to becoming frictionless

All too often, we see systems, processes and data being treated in silos – leading to friction in the warehouse. Your WMS, ERP, carrier management platforms, marketplaces, internal business systems – any systems and technology that make up your infrastructure – need to be seamlessly integrated to enable precise and effective management and movement of goods. This is the crucial foundation to overcoming friction and meeting marketplace requirements. The solution often lies in a modular approach to smart order fulfilment, enabling the seamless connection and sharing of data along with the flexibility to implement new features as and when the business grows.

We’ve seen this secular growth accelerated by the pandemic, with health and safety measures such as social distancing and one-way flows causing disruption to the warehouse floor and the number of staff available to manually fulfil orders. This has amplified the need for automation solutions like robotics and led to e-tailers deploying technologies sooner than they’d anticipated to tackle surging consumer demand. However, as much of this technology was implemented in silos, many are now finding that it’s causing friction at certain points in the warehouse because the disparate systems are not integrated.

Achieving seamless data flow for e-commerce fulfilment

A seamless process from initial order through to delivery is dependent on the right data being sent to the right place at the right time to trigger the right action. When selling over multiple channels, you have multiple processes to adhere to and performance metrics to meet. Online marketplaces can be particularly prescriptive, requiring specific documentation and confirmation at each stage of the fulfilment process. We’ve seen e-tailers fined thousands of pounds by a popular online marketplace for simply not submitting the right data in time – a costly consequence for failing to meet one requirement on a single order. ‘Repeat offenders’ can have their account terminated by marketplaces, and we’re aware of some e-tailers even shutting down their own accounts, being unable to keep up with the fast-paced fulfilment process and data requirements. When managing order fulfilment, every fraction of a second counts.

This is why software needs to be front and centre of your warehouse, integrated with each and every process. Software that optimises your throughput from picking through to packing and despatch via any carrier, will provide a level of flexibility and enhance systems to make sure the right processes happen at the right time. Whether goods are destined for a fulfilment centre or whether they’re being delivered directly to the end customer, the ability to connect data and performance metrics with the physical processes that need to take place on the warehouse floor will make processes as fast and efficient as possible to maximise throughput. Not only does this reduce friction in the warehouse, but it also gets orders out of the door faster and more accurately, helping you to meet stringent online marketplace demands and well as customers’ expectations.

As the industry continues to evolve, these expectations will only get higher, and without the right technologies in place, delivery promises will only get more difficult to keep. Smart technologies can not only help you meet the fulfilment challenges you’re facing today, but they also enable you to evolve, minimising the risk to operations and removing the barriers to growth. Optimising your warehouse to achieve maximum productivity now will stand you in good stead for whatever the future brings.

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