Covid-19 News

“On the first day of Christmas …” Retailers face big challenges around fulfilment this Festive Season

As the UK experiences a second period of lockdown, there is uncertainty about how long the nation’s confinement may last.

Of course the government has said the lockdown will end on the 2nd December. But then it also said it would not enter a national lockdown… just three days before it did!

During the Festive Season, consumers are highly motivated to make sure they have everything they need for Christmas. And with uncertainty looming over the reopening of non-essential retail, plus the memories of shortages during the last lockdown, the spending is likely to start sooner rather than later and (initially at least) the boom is going to be… online.

As a result, the pressures on fulfilment are going to be unprecedented. And it all starts with the lorry parks.

Some online retailers already operate their own equivalent to Operation Stack. This is where lorries can be queued along a motorway in order to prevent chaotic congestion at our ports. Such is the volume of lorries entering the retailers’ distribution centres that leaving traffic flow to its natural conclusion would mean the entire industrial estate, together with the inside lane of the motorway adjacent to the site where they are located would grind to a complete logistical halt. Not good for safety. Not good for the neighbours. And certainly not good for them.

So as the number of containers arriving hits one every 30 seconds, vehicles are queued nearby out of the way of the roadgoing traffic and their arrival managed to avoid congestion. Now it may be that you are not potentially going to clog up miles and miles of motorway. However, it is very important to check what your additional deliveries will do in terms of traffic backed out of your site. It doesn’t take that big an uptick in demand to start to create problems when many sites are at capacity already.

Of course these increases in supply chain activity mean that reception of deliveries too has to be ramped up. So gatehouse security is essential in making sure only what you want to arrive gets into your compound. Once you have marshalled lorries into your yard the question is where do they go. Drivers, perhaps unfamiliar with the layout will need clear direction as to where to actually deliver. And of course this increase in activity means more people coming through your doors than ever before.

Gatehouse automation can also pay a big part in checking the right vehicle is accepted and sent to the correct delivery bay. Just one lorry going the wrong way can cause absolute havoc to multiple deliveries and consequent delays. And as we know the customer journey is everything. So unnecessary delays will simply not be acceptable.

As fast as batches of deliveries arrive in a DC, they will be picked and packed for delivery to individual customers in record time. For some retailers this will be an entirely human picking mechanism. Notwithstanding some adverse press regarding robotics, for the major online players there is no question that this is the direction they will increasingly go.

One of the consequences of automation is that the room for human error is eliminated, although that does not necessarily mean zero errors because inaccurate stock files or pick locations can lead to automated faux pas. Similarly, where human picking takes place there is opportunity for error. And where there is a margin for error there is an opportunity for fraud…

Customers can claim that goods were missing from their deliveries. And this is of course very bad news for the organisation which has failed to provide the customer journey that all retailers strive for. However, in some cases customers will fraudulently claim items were missing when in fact they were not. In practice the first recourse of a retailer is simply to apologise and send the “missing” item. Of course this can very quickly get very expensive and especially at a time of year where all systems are stretched to capacity and people are under huge pressure to deliver – literally! This pressure is even greater this year for those retailers needing to produce exceptional Christmas trading results. Otherwise they risk suffering the wrath of disappointed investors. Or worse, being unable to meet their commitments as the quarter rent day approaches in December! The stakes, for many, are high.

However, new technology available now links the customer receipt with the pick note and video of the pick taking place and the package being sealed. Quickly installed and available as a rental option as opposed to capital expenditure item, these systems can pay for themselves many times over in a very short space of time and are easily added to existing systems. At a time of year when exposure to this kind of deliberate customer fraud and friendly fraud is high, such systems can be invaluable in not only saving money through reducing unnecessary refunds, but to add greater consistency to the customer journey and provide reassurance to customers that they can depend on that retailer.

Of course when we talk about fulfilment most retailers think of the large DC employing thousands of people that has been built from the ground up with one thing in mind. However, this Christmas many retailers are using their stores to fulfil online orders. This could be as a click and collect location or as a dark store from which deliveries local them can be made faster than from a central hub. However, what needs to be kept in mind that what applies above to DCs is even more critical for stores being turned into temporary fulfilment hubs. And this creates multiple challenges because premises are being used for something that, at least from a security point of view, they were not designed for…

I made the point earlier about the issues around increased supply chain activity and elasticity of supply of delivery capacity. How much flexibility is there for you in practice, especially on an industrial estate with multiple retailers all doing the same thing. It may be worth collaborating with other retailers to introduce a shared system of resources to avoid traffic congestion.

Alarm systems designed for stores operating during the day are not the same as those needed for 24 hour access control to dark stores, operating with greater levels of stock than usual. An alarm system keeps people out whereas access control takes account of who is going in and out. How do you monitor someone withdrawing items from stock and leaving the premises. There could be any number of legitimate reasons for doing this and there could be criminal ones too.

Apart from the fitness for purpose of the alarm system, make sure that your stores are actually being monitored as you think they are. Often we have found that stores have been taken off police response monitoring perhaps because of false alarms, but nobody has recognised that alternative arrangements need to be made, because the police will not attend.

And that of course brings us to the issue of keyholders. Who will be contacted in the event of an alarm and can they actually access the store to check all is well. As a company are you happy for a loan employee to be checking a dark store for bad guys on their own at 2am or do you need to talk to a third party security provider about keyholding and associated issues.

Also insurance levels on stock may need to be checked, because the criminal fraternity will be alive to the fact that stores will probably never hold so much stock as they will if they go dark at Christmas, but this was a function that their security was not designed for. Maybe you have been spotted as a soft target.

Christmas has always been challenging for retailers. However, this year it will be doubly so. This is especially true as many of the changes to arrangements being made are themselves expected to be temporary, and so the tendency will be to “make do.” However, I predict that the security issues around fulfilment this Christmas will be some of the most challenging ever for “the most wonderful time of the year…”

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