May 1, 2015, 3:33 PM

Sponsored Special Report: Delivering the goods

Mastering fulfillment and delivery can help e-retailers keep their customers satisfied.

While marketing lures consumers to a retailer’s website, and intelligent merchandising encourages them to buy, flawless fulfillment plays a key role in keeping customers’ satisfied and loyal.

Omitting an item from an order, sending the wrong color or size, or failing to deliver an item within the time promised can damage a retailer’s reputation. Unhappy customers have more options than ever to express their dissatisfaction and many won’t hesitate to vent their frustration to their friends about a retailer’s fulfillment and delivery issues through social media, where consumer-generated commentary can quickly spread.

Since a mistake at any stage of the fulfillment and delivery process can cost a retailer a consumer’s loyalty and future sales, warehouse design and shipping strategies should not be afterthoughts.

“Fulfillment and delivery complete the customer experience,” says Ken Wacker, president of BirdDog Solutions Inc., a provider of shipping solutions. “A customer satisfied with order fulfillment and shipping is more likely to make another purchase than one that is not. An unhappy customer can hurt a retailer’s brand.”

Real-time inventory

Retailers looking to improve their fulfillment operations should start by evaluating how the latest generation of warehouse technologies can help them meet their customer’s expectations for speedy and accurate delivery, experts say. 

Real-time visibility into inventory can improve the accuracy of product availability and help avoid disappointing shoppers who otherwise would not learn an item is unavailable or stocked in the desired quantity until checkout, says Perry Belcastro, vice president of fulfillment services for Saddle Creek Logistics Services, a provider of warehousing, transportation, packaging and fulfillment services.

Technology is available, for example, that would show a customer who wants to purchase a dozen extra-large golf shirts that only 10 are available and that his order cannot exceed the available quantity. Should the customer attempt to place more shirts into his shopping cart than are available, the retailer’s real-time inventory information can enable the site to indicate that an order of that size cannot be processed.

“Showing customers inventory counts in real time sets accurate expectations about product availability,” Belcastro says. “Updating inventory every 10 minutes is not real-time inventory visibility.”

Proving guidance

Once a customer clicks the Buy button, the retailer needs to fulfill the order. Doing so quickly requires the retailer to make the process efficient because no matter how efficiently a warehouse is laid out, there are limits to how quickly human pickers can navigate it without any guidance. One way to speed up the order-picking process is to equip workers with voice-pick systems that guide them through the warehouse to each item in an order using the shortest path possible. 

Voice-picking systems equip warehouse workers with headsets connected to a portable two-way communications device integrated with the warehouse management and inventory management systems. After orders are processed, they are fed into the voice-picking system, which calculates the most efficient route through the warehouse to gather the items in the order. The system uses voice directions to guide pickers along that route. 

After the picker grabs each item, he confirms he procured the correct product by scanning the item’s bar code, which transmits the item’s information back to the warehouse management system. With each product picked, the inventory management system updates the inventory on the retailer’s website.

“Voice pick improves pickers’ productivity by freeing their hands to get items more quickly and directing them through the warehouse to the right product using the most efficient route,” says Craig Hayes, vice president of fulfillment operations for eBay Enterprise. “The learning curve for training pickers to use a voice-picking system is low because voice is a natural extension of how people communicate.”

Language-translation software for voice-picking systems make it possible to hire non-English speaking workers. For instance, eBay Enterprise’s voice-picking system supports translation into Spanish as well other European and Asian languages.

“Being able to train and communicate non-English speaking workers widens the labor pool, especially during the holiday season when the workforce is temporarily expanded,” says Hayes. “Voice picking is a mature, flexible technology that can also be used for other warehouse tasks, such as receiving, replenishment and returning items to the shelf.”

Robots pickers

A voice-picking system isn’t the only way to streamline fulfillment; retailers can also use robots that can work more efficiently and at higher speeds than humans.

“Competition is compressing the amount of time a retailer has from when an order is received to when it must be on the loading dock ready to be shipped,” says Alex Stevens, business development manager for Opex Corp., a provider of material-handling solutions. “Automated picking systems can fill orders faster than they can be filled manually.”

Opex’s Perfect Pick system uses autonomous robotic delivery vehicles, or iBots, that are programmed to move horizontally and vertically through a modular storage aisle to locate items, giving them full accessibility to the inventory in their aisle. Once the iBot finds the tote containing the correct item it slides a sleeve underneath the tray holding the tote and pulls it back on to the iBot. The iBot then transports the tote to the workstation where the picker pulls the item. To confirm the correct item has been placed in the order, the picker can check it against the order information on his workstation screen, which includes an image of the item and its SKU. Additionally, a light is directed into the cell within the tote from which the item is to be picked. After the picker hits a button confirming the item has been removed from the tote, the iBot returns the tote to the storage location and is sent to fetch another one. The iBots are powered by ultracapacitors, which recharge as they pass over a charging strip located in the track at the bottom of the aisle. IBots also have regenerative braking, which allows them to recharge as they descend down the aisle.

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