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Click and collect - overcoming the behind the scenes blues

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“The Click and Collect phenomenon may have called time on the concept of closing time”, suggests Darrel Williams, regional director, Vocollect.

‘Click and Collect’ presents more of a challenge to operations managers than first meets the eye. “Fulfilment is poised to be the next big battleground in retail,” Natalie Berg of Planet Retail was quoted as saying in this publication at the beginning of April.

She was commenting on her company’s latest survey results which suggest that click and collect shopping is set to double by 2017 in the UK. It seems that the two-thirds of the top 50 UK retailers who offer this service have hit on a winner. But is this really the case?

As Berg’s remark implies, click and collect may be popular, but behind its smooth, customer-facing front end, there’s some frantic activity going on behind the scenes to enable order fulfilment. Consumers have got used to ‘clicking’ later in the day than they used to, with evidence suggesting that ‘second screening’ or browsing on phones or tablets while watching TV is on the rise and with the growing trend for collection points at tube stations and even 24 hour garages, the pressure to provide not just next day delivery, but same day or even, two-hour delivery can only intensify.

“So I can buy when I want, and collect when I want, from wherever I want. That’s great….Isn’t it? For the Consumer, “Yes” says Williams, “however for the Retail Supply Chain the pressure is on to become more accurate, faster and extremely agile”.

In the old days, when customers only ordered via their laptops or PCs, demand was steadier, more predictable and the warehouse or logistics firm had time to pick, pack, dispatch and deliver orders as best they could. Next-day delivery was a premium service! Now retailers make ‘late-night pledges’ to their customers and the window for back operations to fulfil is becoming smaller. And if you staff up for this unprecedented demand you risk ruin through the cost of unused capacity as even seemingly unrelated events, a Champions’ League match on the TV for example or a sunny bout of ‘BBQ’ weather directly impacts the nation’s purchase profile, with mobiles and tablets are abandoned until later and shopping postponed until the next day.

So what’s the answer? Frequently we look for a total refresh of technology. However with the economic recovery still proving tentative, any investment needs to be based on a solid, risk-averse business case.

For many retailers, there is a real opportunity for increased market share so something needs to be done but the market size is not infinite just ever- changing. So costly long-drawn out IT implementations may not be suitable for a demand chain in a state of constant flux. Any innovation must be relatively fast and simple to deploy, it must build on the existing strengths of the business and yet be disruptive enough to make the step-change needed.

While technologies such as warehouse automation work well where there are only minor fluctuations in picking patterns, and demand is predicable down to the last SKU, the ever-evolving e-commerce environment needs a more agile solution. Moving from traditional paper-based or RF scanning to voice technology has been shown to improve operational productivity by an average of 25% with an unparalleled capacity to handle ever-changing demand trends for an ever- changing product set, and still shows the investment returned comfortably within a year.

Voice solutions enable staff to work hands and eyes free and are ideally suited to the high-paced pick piece environments found in e-commerce warehouses. With the best systems, completely novice users, or agency staff are able to learn the business , the technology and ‘train’ the system to understand their voice in one session and are up and running, delivering error performance in their first shift. And it gets better – after this basic training they can receive real-time familiar instructions enabling them to work in multiple workflows, becoming multi-skilled and of high value to an agile demand driven operation.

Shift managers receive a real-time view of their progress through their workload, enabling them to plan for peaks and troughs and make well-informed decisions on moving workers to relieve pressure points. No longer working in silos, the inherent work force resource management transforms work patterns; enabling staff to be better used, eliminating the need for over-staffing during lulls in business. And more and more businesses are using the technology beyond picking, adding for example, cycle-counting, receiving, loading, put-away, replenishment and put-to-store to their voice-enabled tasks.

Importantly, voice technology can be scaled up or down, according to changing demands of a supply chain or seasonal peaks, making it ideal for the volatility of the click and collect era.

The obvious popularity of click and collect suggests that it might have been the missing piece to the online retail jigsaw all along. The concept is unlikely to be abandoned – instead retailers will continue to ratch up the pressure on their back operations to fulfil their promises. If fulfilment is, as Planet Retail says, the new battleground, then straightforward and flexible technologies such as voice are the only way to win.

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Published on Tuesday 06 May by Editorial Assistant
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