When it comes to online delivery, customers want it all yesterday. "Fast and free" is the new norm, mainly owing to retail pioneers constantly raising the bar with offers like Amazon Prime and even same-day delivery. To keep customers delighted and to provide the best ecommerce experience, end-to-end tracking through supply chain visibility is essential. This not only identifies errors (and culpability) in good time, but also takes advantage of real-time opportunities. Products arrive intact and on schedule, keeping customers informed without squeezing profit margins. Let’s take a look at how technology is enabling supply chain visibility, from plant to warehouse to final destination – and back again, in the case of returns.
Rising customer expectations
Online shoppers scrutinise vendors for the best offers but free delivery and returns are usually what stops them moving on to browse a competitor or voucher code website. Nearly four in 10 online shoppers say they now expect retailers to offer free two-day delivery. About half of millennials expect it, making "fast and free" the new norm (CBS News) which presents a tall order for retailers and supply chain partners. Many customers also expect to be able to buy a basket load of items to try for size (literally) and then simply return the ones they don’t want, free of charge.
Coupled with the pressure to be more sustainable, ethical and transparent in production, packaging and shipping methods, manufacturing is getting leaner and efficiency is a must. Going ‘cheaper’ (by choosing low cost partners for last-mile delivery, for example) is likely to be a false economy and result in poor or unreliable service. Investing in technology, or choosing partners that are making that investment, is becoming essential.
Investing in visibility
GPS tracking – for retailer and customer – is a great start to enhancing supply chain visibility, although it’s pretty standard these days and nothing too special. Customers expect regular ETA updates rather than have to wait in all day. These self-service checks can reduce the number of customer care agents needed and can help with managing customers’ expectations, but GPS is unable provide real-time location data indoors. Walls and ceilings interrupt satellite signals that GPS relies on, and that includes inside the factory, warehouse and in transit. If something is going pear-shaped along the way, how will you know so you act upon it? Likewise, how can you be sure that your employees, suppliers and partners are being as efficient and diligent as they could be? Delivery and quality failures are rarely tolerated by customers, leading to brand slamming on social media, negative ratings and financial loss to retailers.
Leading vendors and distributors are already streets ahead. If we start by looking at the factory/plant where items are assembled, RFID can identify any missing parts so packages are only despatched if they are complete. That immediately prevents sub-standard products reaching the customer and the ensuing complaints, returns and resend process. It can also prevent counterfeit items entering the supply chain. Fake goods or components are not only poorer quality and illegal but can introduce major health and safety issues, in the case of medicines for example. This is the purpose of the 2019 Falsified Medicines Directive, aiming to improve patient safety by securing the life science supply chain. In this case, being technologically ready is not an option, it’s essential!
Time is money
I’ve blogged previously about modernising the warehouse with technology. Operatives throughout the supply chain using wearable tech can work in a more proactive hands-free way e.g. scanning using sight-controlled glasses. This can be so much quicker, and of course accurate, than manual inventory (yes, paper and pen is still rife in the warehouse!). Wearables even save on training costs and downtime as they offer instant technical prompts/help, and automatic fault reporting. Another major advantage is that these wearables are ergonomically designed with the user’s comfort in mind, so are more willingly adapted.
Consider strategies like warehouse mapping. If workers are constantly traipsing to the back of a huge warehouse, they’re wasting time and therefore money. Heads up displays and augmented reality can track and optimise routes to pallets or dictate warehouse layout. Similarly they can provide real-time audio instructions. A German-based manufacturer reported unnecessary travel time was reduced by 40% doing this.
RFID and RTLS not only provide visibility but also intelligence through real-time data such as current stock levels and shipping opportunities. On-demand transport services like “Uber trucks” can pick up consignments when ready instead of waiting for scheduled pick-ups. This also means price transparency and less time negotiating contracts – all of which can be passed onto the customer as quicker and cheaper delivery. Regarding quality control, early warning systems are key. Smart tags that detect anomalies like temperature fluctuations in transit buy you time to find a solution. Compensation or amends can then be sought for the business, meanwhile the customer may not even need to know. If their delivery can still be honoured within the expected timeframe thanks to supply chain visibility then all’s well and good.
With the pressure to delivery in record time, to a high standard, at a low cost (or no cost at all) you can’t afford to lose sight of the supply chain. Creating an optimum ecommerce experience is an on-going challenge, but the technology is out there and retailers and their partners need to get on board.