For years, companies in the distribution and fulfillment (D&F) sector have been adapting to steady, predictable increases in the adoption of e-commerce business models. Many of these companies had also developed long-term plans to scale up their technological investments incrementally to match anticipated online demand. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many of these well-laid plans have been turned on their head.
Seemingly overnight, D&F operations experienced significant operational disruptions and an unexpected spike in e-commerce orders — accelerating to rates not previously anticipated for several years. Simultaneously, health concerns brought heightened scrutiny to operational safety and the imperative to protect employee well-being and confidence. As a result, distribution center (DC) managers across the retail spectrum have implemented new protocols, practices and processes to simultaneously enhance workplace safety and adapt to high order volumes.
The combination of demand spikes and new workplace safety requirements created a perfect storm of D&F challenges. Retailers and critical supply chain companies that were considered essential businesses quickly discovered the complexities of this rapidly changing D&F landscape. Many soon realized that they were unprepared to manage the influx of consistently high order volumes while addressing emerging safety considerations within DC environments.
But necessity is the mother of invention. Many retail and supply chain leaders have quickly adapted by creating operational strategies that other retailers can adopt to improve their abilities to thrive in this uncertain and demanding market.
Protecting People and Places
The most critical priority for any D&F operation is to protect their essential workers and take the necessary steps to promote a safer working environment. An illness outbreak in a facility could have devastating impacts to both human life and operational continuity. From the moment workers enter a facility to the time they complete their shifts, DC managers can implement a variety of technologies to help them enhance workplace safety and maintain worker confidence.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, finding, training and retaining qualified labor were frequently cited as the single greatest collective challenge (and operational expense) for D&F companies. These resourcing challenges have only gotten worse in 2020, as increased competition for labor and rising wages present daily barriers to meeting throughput and profitability targets. As e-commerce adoption exceeds previous industry projections, DC managers need to leverage tools and technologies designed to drive productivity, keep pace with rising consumer demands, and address new safety protocols.
As more consumers embrace contactless, online fulfillment options, companies across the retail spectrum face prolonged spikes in e-commerce order volumes and the added pressure to shorten fulfillment windows. In both DC and retail store environments, these emerging demands exposed weaknesses in companies’ current e-fulfillment capabilities and introduced concerns about meeting ever-increasing SLAs.
At the same time, DC and retail store managers were tasked with implementing comprehensive facility and enterprise-wide workplace safety measures aimed at improving worker (and customer) confidence and well-being. Market leaders are seeking new tools to manage these intensifying challenges and better optimize operations for future success. These companies are evaluating advanced automation technologies and software to improve fulfillment capabilities, increase productivity, and enhance safety in an uncertain marketplace.
Adapting to this rapidly changing landscape will require retailers to utilize all available tools, technologies and fulfillment strategies to help protect the safety and well-being of their workforce and maintain peak productivity levels.
Christine Feuell is chief commercial officer at Honeywell Intelligrated.
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