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The Role of Warehouse Management Systems in an Omnichannel Market

The right warehouse management system can help companies execute on the heightened service demands of omnichannel retailing. Chuck Fuerst, director of product strategy at HighJump Software, explains which features and capabilities are necessary and how the technology is evolving.

The move from a single sales channel to multiple channels and now to an omnichannel experience has driven increasingly complex work flows and decisions around allocating and segregating inventory, says Fuerst. In this environment, the single most important function for a warehouse management system is full network visibility.

“When you are trying to fulfill orders from a lot of different channels using a lot of different inventory locations, including the back rooms of stores or even store shelves, you have to have total visibility,” Fuerst says. “Otherwise, you will have difficulty getting products to customers in a timely fashion, which is the goal as we move to an omnichannel world – it’s all about customer satisfaction.”

Setting up processes and data exchanges to keep inventory in sync across locations is one of the critical elements that WMS must have, he says. This is important for knowing what is available to promise and for enabling the fast delivery that consumers are demanding. “There will be a lot more one- or two-piece shipments that will go out via parcel, often from the store, so you need to integrate at the store level with some of those parcel systems,” says Fuerst. “This is different from running things through a DC as a central hub.”

HighJump has seen a lot of growth in store fulfillment of e-commerce orders, even in areas like grocery, he says. “We now have a lot of folks who have grown up with technology and are more comfortable ordering groceries online, so I think trends we have seen in retail will filter into other industries. This is a very fast moving area and it is hard to predict where it will go in the next 12 to 18 months,” Fuerst says.

Such rapid changes underscore another requirement for omnichannel warehouse management, which is flexibility. “A lot of companies and retailers are still trying to figure out what their optimal product mix is going to be, what work flows should look like and whether they are going to combine e-commerce and store inventory or keep them separate,” Fuerst says. “This means they need a high level of flexibility and adaptability. What they set up today in terms of work flows and processes could change in six months.” Look for a WMS provider that is forward thinking, he advises. “Omnichannel is a different paradigm from the classic retail, brick-and-mortar world, which most systems were designed for, and a lot of new thinking and new approaches are needed.”

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