Case study

How to achieve the perfect order fulfilment process

Nov 4, 2021 | Pallet Racking

We’ve all been there; made an online purchase expecting a valid service only to receive the total opposite. The wrong goods were delivered, the delivery was late or the goods didn’t arrive at all! In these situations we instantly regret using the retailer we placed the order with and vow never to use them again. Many of us will even alert our friends and family and advise them not to use that particular retailer too.

From a customer’s point of view ‘clicks and mortar’ purchasing should be straightforward; the order is placed and the goods are delivered as intended. The customer doesn’t anticipate a delayed delivery or defected products, the customer trusts the retailer will provide as per the agreement. All it takes to meet customer expectations and provide a good service is for this process to happen without complication, and key to achieving this is an efficient order fulfilment process.

Whether you’re a retailer who carries out order fulfilment in-house or you’re a third party logistics (3PL) provider, getting it right the first time every time is essential to a successful operation. So what steps can you take to ensure the perfect order fulfilment process?

Understand your customer’s expectations

When making an online purchase the customer expects the following:

  • Product availability – If the product is unavailable the customer simply can’t order. For the customer, this is a disappointment; however they will likely source it from elsewhere. For the business this is an immediate loss of sale. If the product is showing availability at the time of the order, but in reality the item is unavailable, this again is a lost sale but it’s also likely to result in furthered sale losses from this customer to who may well turn to your competitors for future purchasing.
  • Order confirmation – Once the order has been placed the customer expects to receive conformation and a correctly stated delivery slot.
  • Order is sent to the warehouse – The items are picked and prepared for despatch and the customer is notified that the order is in process.
  • Shipping – The order leaves the warehouse and the customer expectsto receive a despatch notification followed by courier updates on the delivery status.
  • Delivery – The correct item arrives as scheduled and untarnished with the correct documentation.
  • Returns – If the customer finds the item to be unsuitable or indeed damaged in any way, they anticipate a simple and often free returns procedure and a fast refund.

Unobserved by the customer, it’s the warehouse fulfilment activities that is heavily relied on to meet these expectations.

Shuttle racking system and fork lift truck in operation

Order fulfilment is a strategic operation and is carried out in sequential stages which should be streamlined. Like a chain reaction, if one stage is obstructed for whatever reason, the rest of the operation will be hindered, so let’s look at how we can prevent this:

Be smart with inventory management

Crucial to the first element of customer expectations ‘product availability’,efficient inventory management enables preparation for prospective customer orders.  This means the requested product is available, undamaged and easy to locate and pick as and when an order is placed.  However, to become smart with inventory management you’ll need continual, accurate stock data that will help monitor the following:

  • Working stock levels – Are you current stock levels enough to meet normal demand?
  • Seasonal stock levels – Is your peak season stock levels enough to meet the demand?
  • Standby stock levels – If demand was to rise unexpectedly, could your facility meet those demands?
  • Rescued stock levels – Is there goods such as surplus seasonal stock that can be sold at a reduced price rather than itgo to waste and lose money?
  • Unusable stock levels –How much stock is taking up valuable space that can’t be sold or used?

Depending on the size of the business, data can be collected manually with the use of hand written stock books or spreadsheets, or an electronically powered Warehouse Management System (WMS) can be used whereby scanning inventory barcodes as it passes through the facility, data is collected and organised on database.

Manual Stock Taking – Ideal for smaller sized warehouses, manual stock taking can be carried out by counting stock at regular intervals:

  • Daily/weekly/monthly
  • Every six months or quarterly
  • Annually

Count all in one session – This type of stock take provides very precise data on stock volume because every item is included in the count. If done on a less regular basis, it’s likely that a complete shut down of the warehouse is required to carry out the count and its probable that extra staff will be required so there is added costs to consider.

Count groups in cycles–Counting takes place more often, however the focus of each count is on a specific inventory group. Usually you can avoid or at least limit shutdowns because the scale of each counting session is smaller. The counts can be done as part of operational duties, daily, weekly or monthlyand the cycle starts again once all product groups are complete.

Electronic Stock Taking – The purpose of an electronic WMS is to provide real-time accurate inventory data and simplify inventory management in larger and more complex operations. The process is faster, requires fewer resources and takes very little time and because stock is counted as part of its journey through the facility, there is never a need to shutdown or make time to spend counting.

Whichever way you collect stock data, once it has been analysed the deficiencies are easy to spot and rectify so you can optimise stock and improve stock availability.

Choose optimal storage solutions

The centre piece of a successful operation, warehouse storage can be the ace up your sleeve when it comes to meeting customer expectations but only if you implement a solution that is the most beneficial to your operation.

Without being complex or over sophisticated, warehouse storage solutions have become evermore advanced allowing hard-pressed operations to become more organised, more effective and more streamlined. Rather than a system that simply stores inventory, promote efficiency with a solution that is designed to accommodate the specific needs of your inventory, supports your operational processes and makes optimal use of the space you have.

Ways, in which storage systems can improve productivity, save time and money:

Energy efficiency – Keeping cold chain inventory is an energy hungry operation with running costs significantly higher that that of ambient storage, however by choosing to store in a compact configuration, these costs can be driven down.

A compact storage structure is created through the elimination of fixed working aisles between the rows of stored inventory and instead using the space to multiply your storage. There are a few variations to how each system works, for example, the mobile racking and mobile shelving systems are mounted onto mobile bases and when not in use the rows are positioned close together forming an enclosed, very tightly compact system. For access, the rows are opened to create a temporary access aisle however its worth noting only one aisle can be opened at a time so this would be a better option if turnover is low. Push back racking has one working aisle which runs across the front of multiple deep lanes of racks. The lanes are fitted with rollers and the structure is slightly tilted to enable the last pallet to be loaded to move and push the existing pallet further back into the lane. Shuttle racking is another compact racking systemwhich again incorporates deep running lanes, however shuttles are used to transport the pallets through the lanes and these are controlled electronically. The more shuttles there are, the faster this operation.

Diagram Comparison - Compact Vs Standard

Height space utilisation – Even the highest ceiling isn’t out of reach when it comes to making good use of overhead space.Often unacknowledged, height space is just as effective as floor space when it comes to utilisation, its there to be used, its being paid for so why not use it? Height space can be used to incorporate more storage through the narrow aisle racking system for example. The racks can reach the height of the ceiling whilst the aisles are dramatically narrowed down, utilising floor space at the same time. Very specialist high reaching trucks are required for this system as their slim frame enables them to navigate the aisle whilst being guided by wired rails. If you’re looking to use height space to store hand-loaded goods, long span shelving can be converted into multi tiered shelving. This works by building the shelves high enough to fill the vertical space, and then incorporate floor levels with stairways or lifts to give operators access and move stock with ease. Or you can use height space to create additional floor levels through a mezzanine floor to create a raised storage area, or you could incorporate storage below the level and create offices above it. In fact, a mezzanine floor level can be designed and used for any purpose that will increase the efficiency of your order fulfilment process.

The First-in First-out (FIFO) Method – If your facility handles perishable goods, and the current manual stock rotating system is proving to be ineffective, then the FIFO method might just be your saviour. Pallet live is similar to push back racking in that it is a slightly tilted, compact structure with rollers running along the deep lanes allowing gravity to enforce movement. The difference is that pallet live has two working aisles, one on opposite sides of the structure. One side is used to feed the pallets into the structure and the other is used to pick from the structure. This creates the first-in first-out method which takes away the need for the manual work involved in stock rotating. Carton-live shelving is an option that works in the same way for hand loaded products.

Storage for none standard goods – Your goods can’t be stored on pallets and they can’t fit onto shelves, so how can you store them safely and in an organised manner? Cantilever racking is certainly an option and the biggest advantage is the system can be designed to meet your specific needs whilst being able to adjust to future changing needs. Cantilever racking can even store the heaviest of inventory including white goods and metal beams. The simple yet robust steel structure consists of a heavy duty base and cantilevered arms on which the items are placed upon. These arms can be un-clipped and moved to different areas of the base to accommodate varying inventory types. You can double storage capacity without taking up significant space by placing two structures back to back.

Empty cantilever structure where the components are in view

Protecting delicate garments–Are customers sending back goods that have arrived in a crumpled and creased condition? This can affect the way the customer views the item, however there is a way to prevent such delicate items from looking damaged. Garment hanging just like in our wardrobes, is the most effective way to keep your goods in pristine condition during their time in storage. Warehouse garment hanging systems can be scaled to accommodate your inventory volume whether that means a few rails to a whole floor level of rails. When you hang your items rather than use boxed storage, you may be surprised at how much space you can save. But this isn’t the only advantage, garment hanging is highly organised and each item is visible and accessible.

 

Enhance picking and packing

In bricks and mortar retail, it’s the customer themselves who takes their chosen item from a shelf or rack, however the online customer relies on you, the retailer to pick their chosen item from the shelf or rack, pack it and send it too them. This is an essential part of the process that requires accuracy and speed, so what contributes to effective picking and packing?

Warehouse layout–The most effective way to increase speed and limit hindrances is to ensure an optimum warehouse layout. Travel time is a focal point in warehouse layout planning;we should always look to keep this to a minimum by ensuring the journey of inventory between entry and despatch is in accordance to directional flow. If the inventories journey is straight forward, the operators will be too so when your planning or looking to improve your warehouse layout start with the entrance and exit locations, then position departments along the route in accordance to the process stage order.

Organise inventory – Consider the most frequently picked items then consider their location in the warehouse. Are those products stored the furthest away from the next stage which would likely be the packing area? If so a little reorganisation in moving those items to save travel time would boost efficiency in the picking process. During peak seasons, locate the seasonal items in easy reach and the items currently in reduced demand furthest away. If specific items are often picked together but are at opposite ends of the warehouse, reorganise so they are closer together. Very often, just a little reorganisation of inventory is all that’s needed to massively improve the picking and packing process.

Invest in equipment–Packing benches are designed to provide operators with adequate workspace to carry out the task more effectively.Operators will feel more comfortable during the task, improving their ability to complete the task correctly and swiftly. Getting items to the packing area can be assisted using trolleys once the items have been picked and grouped, or if packing is on the ground floor and picking is on the upper level mezzanine, sliding chutes are ideal for fast movement from the picker to the packer.

Mesh caged mezzanine chute

 

Simplify shipping

The goods are loaded onto transport and leave the facility to be delivered to the customer. When using an external courier remember that their quality of service reflects on your business even though the two are not connected. Any complaints about the courier should be taken seriously as the customer who didn’t receive the order may well avoid ordering again as a result, even though the standard of services were high in your part. Keep courier contracts open for review so you can look at alternative suppliers if service levels begin to decline.

Perfect the returns process

There is a lot of focus on processing a customer order; however the company’s return and refund policies can have great influence on whether or not the order is actually placed. A large proportion of online purchases are only made if the customer is happy with the return policy. The downfall of online purchasing is that the customer doesn’t see the item physically until it arrives so until then, the customer can’t be 100% confident in the product. What if it doesn’t fit? What if it doesn’t suit? For whatever reason, if the product isn’t as expected when it arrives, the customer wants to be confident that the item can be returned. Returns that are easy and free of charge are the most appealing to customers and they don’t want a long wait for the refund either. On their re-entry to the warehouse, returned items will need to be confirmed as having arrived which will trigger the refund process. Although items coming back into the warehouse through return are undesired, it is an integral part of online shopping. However much we do to reduce the return rates, there is always going to be some degree of returns, and it’s crucial to handle returns just as effectively as the rest of the inventory. Once processed, the items, if undamaged will need to re-enter the put-away process making it available for the next order. It’s essential this happens swiftly as returned items left discarded in an unorganised area of the warehouse can affect true availability and eventually cost money.

Prioritise safety

Your fulfilment warehouse is a busy space with moving people, equipment and large storage structures making your workforce and inventory vulnerable to potential accidents that can cause injury or damage. Safety should be your first concern and preventative measures should put in place at the earliest opportunity. These could include:

  • Traffic markings – keeping pedestrians a safe distance away from moving vehicles by segregating walkways. An injured employee can halter the process and cost the company money and its reputation.
  • Weight load notices – Storage structures, whether its racking, shelving or mezzanine floors have their individual weight load limit. To ensure overloading is prevented weight load notices that clearly state maximum weight bearing should be displayed in full view in key locations. This enables the operators to check the weights they are adding are within the limit as they carry out their tasks.
  • Operator training – Crucial to warehouse safety, training allows the operators to carry out their tasks competently and safely. Training is vital in many areas of the operation whether its FLT operator training, or learning how to spot damage or weaknesses in the storage structures.
  • Protection and barriers – Its easy for accidents to happen when you have fork lift trucks moving in and around storage structures, however safety barriers and fixtures play a key role in minimising the effects. These are placed in the most vulnerable places such as the end of the racks, around the racking uprights or around the column base of a mezzanine to take the impact instead of the structure.

End of aisle protection barrier

Call in the warehouse specialists

When it comes to improving warehouse efficiency, you’re at an advantage when you choose to work with WSL’s highly experienced team. Improving warehouse efficiency is what we do every day and having been in the industry for thirty-two years, WSL has developed the essential knowledge and expertise that enable us to help you achieve your goals. We are always delighted to see the long-lasting improvements that our solutions bring to the businesses we work with, and we would grasp the opportunity to assist you in the same way, whatever your requirements and whatever your budget. Call our team today on 0113 2045350 to arrange a free site survey or email sales@wslmail.co.uk

 

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