Key Considerations for an E-Commerce Fulfillment Model
More and more people today are choosing to do their shopping online. The first quarter 2021 e-commerce estimate increased 39% from the first quarter of 2020. Whether it is ordering groceries ahead of time for pickup, tapping an ad on Instagram and buying those sunglasses that caught your eye or a monthly subscription for razors that shows up like clockwork, all of these products begin somewhere. In turn, each of these “somewheres” reach their consumers through their own unique fulfillment model.
By 2023, retail e-commerce sales are expected to account for $740 billion in revenue, up approximately 58% from 2017, according to a Statista market study. If you are a consumer, this may not fully interest you. You might say, “So what? I click a button and the things I want arrive when I need them to.” However, if you are someone in the infancy of starting a business, or if you have an established business that you would like to expand via online sales, creating and maintaining an efficient fulfillment model can be a challenge you grapple with every day.
No two fulfillment models are the same, nor should they be. What works for one retailer may not be effective for another. However, regardless of industry, product or business size, many of the considerations involved in designing an operation are similar. This article will explore what those considerations are, why they are important and how any business can transform their customer engagement through a fulfillment model that evaluates options for insourcing or outsourcing operations, considers strategic investments in supply chain technology and leverages supply chain best practices.
INSOURCING VS. OUTSOURCING FULFILLMENT OPERATIONS
Prior to the emergence of widespread retail e-commerce, fulfillment was a relatively straightforward process. Companies manufactured or procured their products, which were then warehoused in a location with viable transportation routes to their points of sale before eventually being shipped wholesale and stocked at brick-and-mortar retail stores for consumers to purchase. So, what changed? In this simplified example, the biggest shift is that now instead of retailers or company-owned stores accounting for the largest share of orders to the warehouse for fulfillment, this volume is coming from the individual consumer. That said, what has enabled this shift to occur? Well, the answer to that question is multi-faceted. Again, keeping things in a simplified view, this change has largely been driven by an overall decrease in shipping-related costs and expanding technological capabilities that increase the speed of the fulfillment process.
The shipping industry has drastically changed in the last 20 years, with outsourced and third-party logistics (3PL) providers significantly contributing to this reduced-cost trend. According to an Acumen report, the global third-party logistics market is expected to grow at a CAGR of around 7.5% from 2021 to 2028 and is expected to reach a market value of around US$ 1,800 billion by 2028.
Shippers continue to report a reduction in logistics costs by utilizing these outsourced services. What is their secret? Primarily, two factors—scale and technology. Scale, in this sense, means that a wide variety of products from various retailers can be stored and shipped from the same location. This increases truck capacity utilization from the 3PL facility (middlemen) to the shipping hubs that handle last-mile delivery to the consumer. The more a truckload can be fully utilized, the lower the shipping cost per individual item.
This principle applies to every retail operation. If you have an emerging business and want to reduce the cost of reaching your customers, partnering with a 3PL service may be a great option. This would allow a company to take advantage of the 3PL’s scale and technology, for a fee, and to tap into a wider consumer market for less than it would cost to internalize their logistics. Similarly, 3PL partners can be advantageous from a time-to-value perspective. By providing a pathway to quickly spin-up and initiate customer engagement via e-commerce distribution, a 3PL partner can provide scale and reach faster than internalizing. However, this time and cost equation changes as sales volume increases. If a company continually achieves a high sales volume, and can afford to implement a lengthier planning horizon, moving to an internalized operating model may be the better option.
This is where understanding and applying the technology utilized by logistics industry leaders, along with adhering to best practices for warehousing and distribution, become critical to a business’s success. On the other hand, if a company does not meet the sales threshold where partnering with a 3PL is advantageous, options certainly exist to improve fulfillment speed, reduce costs and grow an operation by adopting these technologies and best practices on a smaller scale, all while keeping retail operations independent.
For any operation that desires growth, investing in and improving the technology used to conduct business is a great place to start. This is especially true in a world where anyone who is a maker, creator or inventor can turn ideas into profits by simply creating a website marketplace using common services such as Shopify or Squarespace. Entry into the e-commerce space has never been easier. It is, however, difficult to know what to do next when the sales orders start piling up.
Is too much success a bad thing? Of course not. However, as a retailer, the obligation to customers is to provide them with the products they purchase in a timely manner while reducing defects and incurred costs as much as possible. It sounds simple but gaining brand popularity and maintaining it are two different things. The former is largely based on marketing or innovation while the latter is predominantly due to a high level of organization and business efficiency.
Let us revisit our scenario mentioned at the end of the “Insourcing vs. Outsourcing” section. In this example, consider a retailer that has introduced an innovative product or brand to the e-commerce market, and sales are taking off. The success is there, but what do you do next to improve organization and efficiency? First and foremost, getting a grasp on inventory and understanding the product movement within the “four walls” of your operation will prove critical to the long-term success of the business. This is where a warehouse management system (WMS) can help. In years past, the acronym WMS has been synonymous with large-scale, highly sophisticated and automated operations. Today, however, this landscape has changed significantly. Gone are the days of high start-up costs and expensive on-site equipment with an army of consulting resources to get a basic WMS up and running. Those kinds of deployments are now predominantly reserved for the most sophisticated large-network fulfillment businesses where subject matter expert resources can provide their highest value.
So why adopt a WMS? A warehouse management system should be thought of, to use a computing analogy, as the “operating system” for your fulfillment business. It can funnel in orders that you receive from your e-commerce web portal and manage workflow—from directed put-away of product to batch picking orders—with the goal of timely fulfillment to consumers. It can track inventory from receipt to storage and replenishment to sale. Furthermore, it will function as the nucleus of your operation where additional systems and technologies can be built out to continue enhancing operational capabilities. These additional systems may eventually include a transportation management system (TMS) for optimized truck-load planning and parcel shipping, a labor-management system (LMS) for improving workforce engagement and order management or distributed order management system (OMS/DOM) for managing various order streams coming from multiple points of sale.
The WMS can even serve as the basis for attaching automation components such as a warehouse controls system (WCS) or warehouse execution system (WES) for use with conveyor, robotics, sorters or storage and retrieval systems. According to a study by APQC, organizations utilizing a WMS spend roughly $3.63 less per $1,000 in revenue across the entire logistics process than those not using a WMS. This may not appear to be much, but as revenue increases, these savings do as well. Likewise, the efficiency gained by implementing a WMS can result in significantly higher-order accuracy rates and reduce the overall number of expedited orders shipped, further lowering overall shipping costs for a seller.
The core function of a WMS is to better manage the flow of goods within an operation by increasing organization, with the thought being that a high level of organization leads to increased efficiency. This is something any operation, big or small, can take advantage of. Vendors today are providing system options for all sizes of fulfillment businesses. On the smaller side, vendors such as Systems Logic’s “Wireless Warehouse in a Box” and Ship Hero’s suite of products provide excellent cloud-hosted and subscription software options for a quick, easy and affordable deployment.
Additionally, these products incorporate direct one-click integrations to many common sales channels for immediate organizational benefits while also providing a foundation for future technological enhancements that may be desired. According to the company FAQs for both vendors, typical setup time for a system of this type is roughly one week but can depend on several factors. These variables can include the size of the product catalog that needs to be loaded in, the number of sales channel APIs you would like to connect and the extent to which you would like to custom configure certain aspects of the product. Notably, purchasing a WMS and utilizing it for fulfillment within one to two weeks should appeal to any seller that views organization and efficiency as primary drivers for the future success of their business.
On the mid-level side—keeping the cloud-deployed and subscription basis requirements—many players have forayed into this market providing a wide array of capabilities and advantages. Some vendors in this space have begun to incorporate controls systems, labor and order management modules, KPI dashboards and reporting, as well as additional configuration options. Other capabilities of these products include multi-site and multi-tenant deployments, lite-kitting and build-to-order needs, and space-cube and pick-path optimization functions.
Strong vendors in this space include Deposco, Intellitrack, Path Guide, Ship Edge and SKUVault. Further investigating these options may appeal to businesses that are already utilizing a low complexity system but recognize additional capabilities are needed to sustain and expand upon their success. Uplifting systems in this space will likely require coordination with vendor resources as well as possibly employing contract labor that specializes in WMS installations and configuration. Once live, however, these systems give any mid-sized fulfillment operation significant capabilities that they can continue to develop and utilize for years to come.
If you are familiar with the current WMS landscape, then the vendors servicing the top end of the market should not come as a surprise. These offerings service the most technologically complex distribution operations and provide a level of capability that other systems simply cannot match. They are also on the cutting edge of supply chain innovation, often incorporating native control systems, advanced order streaming (opposed to traditional waving) functions, sophisticated put-away and allocation configuration options, as well as enhanced labor and capacity planning tools. Some vendors are even revolutionizing the way their systems are sold and maintained by converting their products to what is known as a “version-less” architecture. This, in simple terms, means that once you purchase a subscription to the product, you will not have to purchase its successor version in the future. It also means that updates and software patches, along with product upgrades, can be pushed out to the customer with minimal intervention or disruption to day-to-day processes at a lower overall cost.
When considering systems of this scale, products offered by Blue Yonder, Infor, Manhattan Associates, Körber-HighJump and SAP come to mind. Other vendors that fall just short of the very top tier include Avectous, Click Reply, Made4Net, Microlistics and Softeon, among others. It is worth noting that these systems will require significant capital investment to purchase, deploy and maintain over their life cycles. The previously mentioned version-less example is a way in which vendors are attempting to address some of these long-term cost concerns. However, the price of adoption is still quite high. That said, if a business requires intelligent and automated decision-making from its systems, along with high visibility and control over distribution operations, these are the best solutions available.
Extended Systems and Other Options
WMS solutions receive significant attention due to the organizational and process capabilities these systems present, but a key feature for sellers may be left out of the vendor-provided solution. This feature is called parcel shipping. Parcel shipping is defined as shipping small and light boxed items, usually weighing less than 100 pounds, that can be moved without equipment assistance. The process of parcel shipping involves packaging the sold items, weighing and measuring the shipping container with its contents inside and addressing the box to the end customer with a printed shipping label. Parcel shipping capabilities can be introduced to the fulfillment process as standalone systems, part of a TMS or within a WMS solution. Many options are available in this technology space so it is pertinent to research the various types of parcel shipping solutions that will best fit your current business’ size and complexity while allowing for future growth and development.
While incorporating supply chain technologies and automation into a fulfillment model can drive widespread efficiency gains and reduce operating costs, these tools must be utilized effectively to achieve the desired benefits. The parameters that define the successful use of these tools are known to industry specialists as supply chain and warehousing best practices. Now, it should also be stated that these best practices can and should be incorporated to all distribution models regardless of size and complexity. Any distribution operation can reap widespread benefits by implementing these methods to improve organization and streamline processes.
The concept of effective slotting can be a major driver of efficiency gains for any size business. Slotting, as a warehousing strategy, is the idea that goods should be stored in areas of an operation that ultimately reduces the overall travel time needed for laborers to complete outgoing orders. A “slot,” so to speak, is where an item lives within the building. This is the primary place you store an item or product to be readily accessible for boxing and shipping. For instance, if workers are consistently traveling back and forth across a building to obtain the most ordered items a business sells, this becomes inefficient. Instead, consider grouping the highest sales volume items together in the most easily accessible zone of an operation to reduce the amount of travel time required to collect and fill orders. It should also be mentioned that these high-volume items will likely change over time and as such, slotting strategies should change as well.
The number of high-volume products grouped together may expand or contract and may also be swapped out with other products as sales figures and forecasts change. It also does not have to stop there. Many businesses organize their entire operations such that the least commonly purchased items are at the farthest end of their building with the most purchased items located closest to pack-out and shipping. Again, the whole idea is to reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to get products out the door and into the hands of customers. This can also be further supplemented with automation such as conveyors, goods-to-person systems and even AI-assisted software algorithms included in some high-end WMS solutions. However, technology and automation are not a requirement to implement this strategy and reap immediate benefits.
A question many businesses periodically ask themselves is, “What size building is needed to store and effectively distribute product?” In some cases, the question should instead be framed as, “Is the available space we have being used effectively?” Evaluating and refining the way in which products are stored can be equally as important as determining where they are located and will likewise be a key component of defining how much space a business requires. Like slotting, which functions as a strategy to reduce travel times, determining which storage mediums to use is all about reducing the amount of wasted space, or “air,” that exists in a product location. For instance, if a section of full-size pallet racking is being used to store quarter- or half-size pallets, this space is not being properly utilized. There could be anywhere from 50-75% of unoccupied space in each of these locations. In this example, if these products are consistently stored in pallets of this size, consider reducing the location opening height of the racking bays. Depending on the product weights, it may be possible to add one or two more overall levels of storage to this area and consolidate products without requiring additional square footage.
This is a straightforward example, but now consider how much space is potentially being wasted when you examine a full-size warehouse. What other consolidation opportunities exist? If a business is carrying a large amount, think multiple pallets of certain products at a time, there could be an opportunity to implement a double-deep pallet storage system. This would lead to an increase in the volume that can be stored at one location while minimizing the overall square footage required to do so. Likewise, strategies exist for handling smaller quantities and sizes of products.
Decked shelving systems can provide a way to mix cases of products in smaller locations, further minimizing the amount of wasted space. These mediums can also be quite sturdy, with the ability to stack high, allowing for large volumes of various products to be in one centralized area. Just be sure to keep track of where everything is placed. These strategies can be further expanded upon by incorporating technologies such as automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), pallet shuttle systems for very high-density full-pallet storage, as well as both horizontal and vertical carousel systems for small item storage and high throughput rates. Last, but certainly not least, do not underestimate the potential of building a mezzanine. The overall takeaway from this best practice should be before building out, consider what can be accomplished by building up, and strive to effectively use the space available before acquiring more.
When thinking about overall operating efficiency, the goal is to move product from storage to the customer as fast and accurately as possible. A factor that can directly affect this, within the four walls of a fulfillment operation, is the amount of product handling required to complete a sale. Like reducing travel times within the building, minimizing the number of steps required to go from storage to the customer can greatly increase the number of sales that can be completed in a given timeframe. One way to do this is to look for opportunities where processing steps may be redundant. When filling orders, instead of placing items in an intermediary bin to take to a packing area, where they must be transferred from the bin to an outbound shipping carton, consider placing the ordered items directly into the shipping box to eliminate this double-handling.
Expanding upon this idea, another strategy is to fill multiple orders at a time. Think about using a cart or other simple equipment to collect the ordered products from storage directly into their shipping containers and then taking this batch of orders to a pack-out or shipping area. By adopting this strategy of “batching,” further improvements can be made such as grouping similar orders together and minimizing the overall travel distance required. Or alternatively, if volume is high enough, it becomes possible to collect all of the items needed for a group of orders and then sort the products to the right shipping containers at a downstream area, enabling operators to process more volume in a shorter period of time. This is an area that most WMS systems excel in, especially higher-tier systems where more automated decision-making tools are included.
New products and sellers are emerging in the retail market daily. Those enterprises that experience success will continually look for new ways of expanding customer engagement. Whether that means outsourcing operations or taking steps to internally build a robust fulfillment model, the decision to pursue either avenue will be unique to each individual business. Developing an internal distribution operation may seem like a daunting task, especially as success mounts and orders begin to accrue. However, abundant success should not be thought of as a bad thing, but rather a challenge to innovate. The tools required to capitalize on this success and grow towards the future have never been more accessible, though it can be confusing knowing just where to start. Hopefully, the information presented here helps to provide clarity on these topics and outlines a roadmap for improving operations regardless of a business’s size or complexity.
Sam Nichols is a Project Consultant for Tompkins Solutions. Tompkins Solutions, a subsidiary of Tompkins International, is a global supply chain services firm dedicated to helping clients achieve supply chain excellence and profitable growth. Founded in 1975, Tompkins has integrated its decades of experience in strategy, commerce, logistics and technology to provide unique supply chain consulting and material handling integration solutions. By combining best-in-breed services and technologies, Tompkins delivers a true end-to-end supply chain solution, enabling clients to improve the customer experience and ensure long-term success. Tompkins is headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina and has offices throughout North America. For more information, please visit www.tompkinsinc.com.