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Retail winners were online experts

15 January 2014

Every year there are winners and losers in the flurry of retail activity around Christmas and the New Year – 2013 was no different.

With over 115m visits to retail websites per day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day were all record online sales days and even those who saw profits dip, notably Debenhams, saw online sales increasing from last year. John Lewis, possibly the biggest winner, reported total sales of £734m for the five weeks to 28 December 2013, up 7.2% compared with last year.

Increased volume, Christmas deals and free delivery promotions frequently require retailers to be able to fulfil fluctuating volumes of online orders for delivery on a real time basis. In addition to scheduled store deliveries of pallets and cases, retailers must also factor split-case picking and multi-line item sortation in to their fulfilment processes. Being able to cope well with these allows a wider variety of products to be offered to customers, particularly online.

Perhaps it was no coincidence then, that the latest results show those retailers thought to excel at online - John Lewis, House of Fraser and Next, are all doing incredibly well. Online retail giant Amazon saw record Christmas Day sales this year, and a record year overall. ASDA also enjoyed its biggest ever online shopping days over Christmas, exceeding £5m of home shopping sales for the first time on both December 21 and 22.  Many retailers also spoke about the growth in ‘Click and Collect’ as justification for their High Street presence and retail outlets, although James Sharples, managing director at warehouse automation specialists, Swisslog UK sees another message behind the figures.

"The hardest work happens in the warehouse and throughout the distribution chain. Responding well both online and in store requires a responsive, flexible system that allows retailers to react quickly and deliver a better service. Established retailers may have an interest in driving people to stores, nevertheless, the convenience of online and the reassurance provided by a physical store clearly resonates with shoppers.”

"In the run up to Christmas 2013, the demands on the workforce came under closer scrutiny than ever before. Order fulfilment can involve physically taxing and repetitive movements. The need to maximise efficiency and minimise potential injury is higher than ever.”

The key players are already investing in technology to allow them to take advantage of Christmas 2014 and beyond and the human element - Amazon alone adds up to 50,000 workers to its festive roster – may also be a factor in the latest investments.

"In the run up to Christmas 2013, the demands on the workforce came under closer scrutiny than ever before,” says James. "Order fulfilment can involve physically taxing, repetitive movements including lifting, carrying and bending. Workers are responsible for large volumes of orders each day, and in large warehouse facilities with manual operations, pickers may walk more than 15 miles each day. The need to maximise efficiency and minimise potential injury is higher than ever.”

New technological and ergonomic advances can help retailers improve the worker environment while meeting e-commerce demand. Automation has become more affordable and productive than ever, and companies around the globe are leveraging such technology in their warehouses to improve the distribution centre work environment. 

Says James: "Modern automation systems present very little risk compared to the randomness of such warehouse equipment as forklifts, reach trucks, pallet trucks and other manually guided power equipment. Typical fixed aisle ASRS and systems with high-speed robots for put away and storage are designed to work in confines that are limited or even completely off-limits to workers.”

With the latest automated technologies such as AutoStore in place, operators can merely insert bins into a storage cube via receiving stations. Robots bring inventory to pickers for order fulfilment selection and then replace any remaining material back into storage. This saves time, increases productivity and eliminates thousands of miles of walking for pickers in a typical fulfilment centre.

"As e-commerce demand grows,” concludes James, "more companies recognise that automated solutions for warehouses and distribution centres can simultaneously improve workers’ quality of life and help them respond faster and more accurately than ever before.” 

Whatever the economy brings, what is certain is that the festivities will be on us once again before we know it. Those retailers that trust automated warehouse solutions to ensure speedy and accurate order fulfilment, reduce costs associated with inaccuracy and inefficiency and make the most of our spending habits, are sure to be the winners of Christmas 2014.