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RetailTrends: Friction-free fulfilment

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

The on-demand economy has given rise to increasingly demanding customers who want their goods to be delivered within the shortest possible time. Retailers who can’t cut the friction that creates a longer wait for their customers might well find themselves cut out of people’s shopping lists.

This year, about 22% of retail earnings will come through online stores, according to the Office of National Statistics, a figure that rises to between 45-50% when you exclude groceries. Moving into 2021 eCommerce will continue to grow.

While strong infrastructure and impressive delivery services have provided the foundation for the adoption of online shopping, political turbulence — triggering a tightness in the labour market — is forcing retailers to develop smarter operations and boost staff efficiency. According to a 2020 Warehouse Study, 60% of organisations claim that labour efficiency and productivity are among their top challenges.

Intelligent automation in the warehouse and in store

One in four warehouse managers expect to implement full automation by 2024, so next year is set to see a big jump in augmented and automated technologies, as retail leaders look to better manage inventory, improve supply chain efficiency and boost customer satisfaction levels. Augmented worker technology is growing, and decision-makers continue to see it as a gateway to further automation. More than three-quarters (77%) think augmenting workers with technology is the best way to introduce automation in the warehouse.

What does that look like?

Key technologies in 2021 include heads-up displays – wearable technology that provides visual display to workers and increases their picking efficiency – as well as automated micro-vehicles autonomously carrying trays full of products to drop-off zones.

By combining these technologies across an integrated, supply line warehouse, managers can increase overall efficiency and minimise risk of injury.

Also retailers look out for robotic solutions that helps workers pick products more efficiently or complete tasks like shelf inventory control, or a computer vision solution that can identify operational inefficiencies in the store such as out of stock or missing price tags. Machine learning and advanced analytics will also continue to be gain ground.

Manual workflows will shift toward execution through intelligent automation. Tasks that require walking will shift to robotics solutions, both in the warehouse and in store. Tasks like getting someone to visually inspect a product before making a decision will move toward computer vision and sensor technologies such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

Strong RFID growth

There’s strong growth in RFID, especially in fashion, which is using the technology to identify stock position to support omnichannel experiences. RFID technology will continue to make a difference with the ability to manage inventory accuracy and visibility. And its demand will continue to grow thanks to its effectiveness in bringing full visibility to inventories, knowing exactly what items and sizes are available and where.

This provides better utilisation of inventory; it also supports traceability initiatives. RFID-enabled software, hardware and tagging solutions offer up-to-the-minute, item-level inventory lookup, increasing inventory accuracy and shopper satisfaction while reducing out of stocks, overstocks and replenishment errors.

With most shopping activity happening online, retailers and logistics providers need to really optimise their delivery offerings. Meanwhile, consumers are taking no chances on missing home deliveries so click & collect services are expected to grow at twice the rate of normal deliveries. Right now, click & collect accounts for one-sixth of the overall online delivery market.

The future is now

But it’s not all about online shopping: in fact, 58% of shoppers still prefer shopping in brick and mortar retail stores, according to 2020 Global Shopper study. So it’s vital that retailers invest in the modernisation of the shop floor, whether through robotics augmented by humans or other technologies.

A majority (65%) of shoppers believe store staff using handheld computers with built-in scanners can improve their shopping experience. So, while robots capture the imagination, it might actually be better-equipped people who truly make the difference in customer engagement and satisfaction. The need to find the right fulfilment solutions will continue.

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