Five e-commerce lessons learnt during Covid

15 March 2021
The rapid proliferation of online shopping globally has created a pressing need to increase warehousing capabilities

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce was the fastest-growing segment in the world. The health crisis catalysed that growth as consumers rushed to online shop. E-commerce expanded in lower-tier cities and older age groups, resulting in the emergence of a new e-commerce user group.

A survey published by Havas Group China in March 2020 found that among shoppers living in cities classified as Tier 3 (Beijing and Shenzhen) and below, e-commerce activity accounted for 69.2 per cent of the total share of retail sales during the outbreak.

That amounted to an increase of 12 per cent from January 2020. Those aged 31 and above made up 49 per cent of online consumers in the same month. By the end of February, this had leaped to 60 per cent.

The surge in e-commerce exerted pressure on individual warehouses, which have become exposed to high volatility and unpredictability. And while Havas’ findings focus primarily on China, we find that the sentiment is the same across the globe.

Covid-19 drives online shopping

Havas also mentions that 80 per cent of global warehouses did not have any automation in 2016, and 36 per cent of retailers said they adjusted their marketplace strategy as a result of Covid-19.

A recent report by Deloitte on Dubai’s real estate market states that growth in the e-commerce segment has increased the requirement for storage and fulfilment centres, thus boosting the demand for warehouses. Additionally, next-day or same-delivery options are expected to create a need for last-mile delivery hubs, close to residential and business districts.

Swisslog, a Switzerland-based company specialising in logistics automation for warehouses and distribution centres, remained in liaison with its customers during the pandemic.

We had an opportunity to learn from these unprecedented times. Here, we share some common pitfalls, with suggestions on how to avoid them in the future.

Personnel shortage

Personnel planning was a challenge during the coronavirus crisis, due to employees not being able to come to work because of lockdown or infection. 

By using robots to find and move specific products in a goods-to-person model, it is no longer necessary for individuals to walk up and down aisles all day pulling orders. This is not only a better use of human resources, but also results in dramatically reduced pick times.

Modular storage and order picking systems allow forward-thinking companies to remain operational even with fewer personnel on site. The intuitive workstation interface reduces travel paths and lowers the picking error rate.

Multi-shift operations

High reductions in personnel coincided with rising demand and the need for multi-shift operations. A modular, robotic goods-to-person picking solution not only increases the productivity of current personnel, it also provides the flexibility to extend work shifts by having robots stage orders before human workers arrive on the job.

Easy to deploy, scalable and flexible solutions are well-suited for companies intending to accelerate their operations during the surge in demand without any additional construction.

Avoiding unnecessary stockpiling

While we are focusing on products in high demand, what happens with those that are not selling? Are they sent back to the manufacturer? Where are they stockpiled?

With smart software, companies can allocate categories and articles based on their frequency of usage. Solutions that can help with stock frequency, visibility of stock, expiry dates information and operation strategy (first-in-first-out or last-in-first-out) can help a company boost its warehouse efficiency and operational performance by strategically managing the location of the fastmoving inventory, and its dynamic management.

No time to train

A company does not need to slow down its operations in order to train new personnel for its warehouse. Deployment of software can ensure continuity of operations while delivering excellence in skills. Solutions can be deployed to continue operations while new personnel are trained.

Machine downtime – what now?

During lockdowns, companies experiencing interruptions in hardware functioning struggled to get engineers on board to fix issues.

Such cases made them realise the importance of remote services. Companies can now leverage augmented reality to enable a domain expert to see the customer’s physical environment via their smart device and guide them in real time towards proven resolutions.

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