Pickers and packers have gone straight to the top of the retail supply chain as eCommerce and Dark Stores become staples of the new retail normal. Demands are higher than ever, and the way we pick and pack has changed beyond recognition – so how can retailers merge technology with humans to empower their employees and drive better results?
In a year of disruption and hardship, supermarket brands and essential retailers have been some of the biggest winners. Those that were able to rapidly transform their business models in line with new government regulations and changing customer habits have thrived where businesses in other sectors have struggled.
However, it remains important to emphasise that these successes have not extended to all within the retail sector, and they certainly haven’t come without challenges. Indeed, the success of some companies in pivoting to eCommerce has created obstacles of capacity and order fulfilment. Prior to the pandemic, digital transformation programs were viewed as long-term strategic projects, but the boom in online shopping has accelerated the timeline for this technology to be integrated into the supply chain, not least in picking and packing.
Pick and choose wisely
Against a backdrop of thriving eCommerce, retailers now need to have a clear strategy as to which picking and packing methods work best for their operations, including the hardware and software they choose to employ to drive accuracy, efficiency and convenience for workers.
Effective packing strategies start with laser-focused inventory management, whether it’s piece packing – more suited to semi-dark stores – or batch packing – for distribution centers and fully dark stores. Choosing the right strategy boils down to the size of the business, the growth trajectory and understanding what the pick and pack software needs to achieve. Once a retailer has established what exactly they want to improve in the inventory process, they can automate order fulfilment processes, maintain lean operations and be on their way to accelerated workflows.
As the retailer grows, the technology also must be able to scale accordingly. What’s become clear however, is that the benefits are well underway for those ahead of the picking and packing curve.
Packed full of potential
With a growing digitally-native population and the health concerns associated with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, smart technology in retail has surged in popularity. Giving businesses the means to deliver on unprecedented demand, it has filled the gap in labour and taken the strain of low-level repetitive tasks off employees.
LS Retail looks at the example of online supermarket delivery firm Ocado. When the UK entered its first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, Ocado’s products saw a 10x increase in demand. The company was able to take this spike in its stride by sending robot-powered warehouse into overdrive:
‘The robots are both delivery and picking & packing machines. In the warehouses they run around picking up food and bring them to a human who then packs groceries. But Ocado plans to extend these capabilities further. The company owns hundreds of patents which cover a range of automations and technologies from product-picking robots to item scanners that members of staff can wear on their heads.’
Getting set for growth
Ocado’s plans for expanding automation are key. In 2021 and beyond, retailers must adapt further to the changing landscape by introducing new picking and packing capabilities. And they’re not alone. Other retailers are taking note of how technology will maximise their supply chain and ultimately provide a better service for customers, setting their sights on automation to prepare for the increasing shift to online. For instance, Tesco is planning to open 25 highly automated urban fulfilment centres in the next year, which will harness the latest technology to boost picking efficiency by up to 3 times.
Empowering people with technology
Picking and packing advancements not only offer powerful productivity gains by improving speed and accuracy in the warehouse, but they have a key role to play in enhancing the employee experience. Robotics built with AI and machine learning are becoming more intelligent and flexible, now working in collaboration with the retail associate. As the robot takes care of low-value travel tasks, workers can focus on picking tasks within their dedicated zone.
Beyond infrastructure advancements, technology such as handheld mobile scanning devices and voice-guided work also fuel employee satisfaction and retention. With voice technology, pickers can move around the warehouse freely, as the hands-free system provides real-time instructions for tasks. Working in harmony with the employee, they can feedback necessary information into the system. Uniting employees with these tools offers compelling benefits. Getting connected to clear guidance on optimised pick paths enables them to increase accuracy by up to 85% and boost productivity by 35%, while supporting safer measures by allowing them to focus on the task at hand.
What’s more, barcode scanners with cutting-edge features are proving to banish picking and packing errors. Reducing human errors, employees can utilise these handheld devices to access time-saving information on inventory locations and connect them to software to analyse and manage inventory efficiently. In better equipping employees, retailers can relieve the mounting pressures on them for ever more accurate and rapid results.
The race to pick up the pace
From facilitating frustration-free employee experiences to effectively managing the influx of online orders, leveraging software is set to stay for the future of picking and packing processes. As retailers consider integrating new technology, they should devise a strategy that puts people and the unique business requirements at its heart to uncover joined-up solutions. Once in place, the business and its customers will experience a world of difference.
At CDW, we know that maximising productivity and minimising potential for operational errors has never been more important. That’s why we support retailers with smart strategies that simplify your ambitions with a clear route to success and amplify the results. If you'd like to learn more about the changing face of picking and packing and how you can put new measures into practice within your business, we'd love to talk.