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So you've got this far. Starting an Online Store is a lot easier when you've got the right info and this is the place where you can find it. It takes a lot of drive do get through Part 1 and Part 2 of this guide, so good for you!
During this part of the guide, you'll get a better understanding of what fulfillment means and how to build a company that can effectively manage orders and ship the right products to the customer.
Good, good fulfillment. Yeah! But wait …
Good question! Although the term fulfillment is used quite a lot, not everyone has a clear grasp on the whole idea. I mean – why fulfillment? Well, it's actually a pretty simple concept. Order fulfillment is anything that has to do with fulfilling your promise to the customer. That promise is you're going to ship the products they've purchased, those products are going to be in good condition and they will arrive as soon as possible.
Fulfillment also covers the reverse process (also called reverse logistics). That means getting merchandise back from the customer. That type of operations happen:
So basically when your ecommerce business is fulfilling an order, it is actually making good on its promise to deliver merchandise in the best way possible. Although the concept is not that really hard to grasp, making it happen is a little bit harder.
In order to make sure your fulfillment operations you'll have to look for the answer to four very important questions:
Fulfillment is probably the most complex and tedious part of ecommerce. It is also the one thing that is the least talked about in terms of ecommerce. It's not flashy and it's not cool. It's complex, involves a lot of tweaking and a lot of work to getting it right. While most ecommerce guides will point out to the importance of picking the right shade of orange for the "Buy now" button, few will speak of how important fulfillment is.
Just to get a glimpse of how important fulfillment is – think of your car. While having the right color and the right type of leather is important, the car won't start without an engine. Fulfillment is the engine that keeps ecommerce going.
There are just five basic steps in fulfilling ecommerce orders. Four of them are mandatory and one is optional. Hopefully you will cover this last step as few times as possible. These five very important steps are:
Overview of the Fulfillment Process (including returns)
Customers will place the orders through one of your sales channels. It may be your online store, on the phone or through a mobile application or a pop-up store.
There is a great variety of order management software out there and later on on this guide will get through some of them. It matters less what you will be choosing later on. What matters from a fulfillment standpoint is what the order info should contain. Here is the minimal information you will be needing:
Most of the time, you will be receiving more info from your order management tool but these are the essential blocks of information to keep in mind.
Before moving on to the actual order fulfillment bullet points I have to make a point. You don't HAVE to fulfill the orders yourself. Some companies outsource their fulfillment to other companies. My advice is you should keep most of your fulfillment operations within your company. You won't be able to ship products across the globe but you can pick, pack and carefully wrap orders for your customers.
When medium and large online stores are fighting each other over consumer mind share, we only see the marketing and superficial aspect of this battles. But the fact is, underneath all this visible struggles, the real battles are won in the warehouse. Your real chance for success stands in picking, packing and shipping the right products, within the timeframe you've promised.
It may seem hard to handle fulfillment operations and it sure is. But because it is hard, you have to master it before the competition does. Walmart and Amazon, two of the largest retailers in the world, are also two of the best supply chains in the world. It's not that these companies have developed spectacular fulfillment operations because of their huge sales but the other way around.
Glad we've got that out of the way. Now – what's the best way you can receive products in your inventory?
It all starts with an order to your supplier. It is usually called a "Purchase Order" as you are placing an order to purchase products. We will assume that you have already set up an agreement with your suppliers and they will ship the products. You will probably pay as you place your order, when the order arrives or at a given time after the order has arrived, if you have agreed as such with your supplier.
Once the products have arrived at your warehouse you will need to:
( Basic check list when receiving products from the supplier )
Placing the products in the inventory is a very important part in receiving the products. The better you keep track of where the products are, the less time and effort you will need when picking and packing the products.
When placing the products in storage you need to keep in mind some very important aspects:
Hopefully at this point you have managed to get the products in your inventory, they are correctly marked and stored and you are ready to pick said products for the orders you are going to be shipping.
Once you have the products in the inventory and orders are coming in, it's time to process these orders.
Order processing is split between four main areas:
Picking is probably the most time consuming part of order processing. It also gets a lot more complicated as your business grows and it may be prone to errors. Having more products in your inventory will increase the complexity of picking the right products in the fastest way possible.
If you've managed to place the products in the right spots (as stated in the step above – receiving products) your chances of correctly processing orders increase big time. The reason is it will be easier for picking staff to move fast through the aisles and pick the right products.
To have a streamlined picking process that works just as well with 10 orders per day or 1000 orders per day you have to decrease the chances for errors. To do so, your picking staff will cycle through these steps:
( A basic example for a picking list )
Packing is the next step in the fulfillment operation. Once the products have been picked from the corresponding aisle, shelf or bin, they are sent to the packing station where they will be split into orders and prepared for shipping.
The packing operation is usually split into these further steps:
Once the products are placed in the right package, a quality control station will check for any errors that may happen.
Quality control personnel will usually check for one of the following errors that may appear:
Once the products have been picked, packed and quality control made sure there were no errors in the order management process, the package is ready for shipping.
Online stores usually partner with one or more shipping companies to deliver the goods. The shipping station will check the package weight and direct it to the right shipping partner.
Most shipping companies will provide you with a general framework on how to handle packing and preparing for shipping. Here are the most popular ones:
When these companies (and others) will charge you for their shipping services they will take into account some (or all) of the following variables:
Once the orders are picked by the shipping company, the order status is constantly updated so customers and the online store knows where the packages are at the moment.
When the products are delivered the status is updated and the order is confirmed. After this point the product is in the customer's ownership and any reverse process wil be treated as a return.
Oh, returns – can't live with them, can't live without them. Just kidding. A clear and friendly return policy is what sets the likes of Zappos.com apart from the competition. They will let you return the products you've purchased within 365 days, free of charge and as their return centers will check the products you will be credited within 7 days with the money you've spent.
Ecommerce customers love a great return policy and you need to be ready to handle one. The logistics involved in such a return process are usually dubbed reverse logistics. This means you will reverse the steps mentioned above.
Basically you will unship the products, unpack, unpick and un-order everything.
If you offer free shipping, you will have to handle the shipping costs from the customer to your return center (for small and medium companies, the return centers are the same as the fulfillment facilities).
Now, the big problem when getting information on handling returns is that most of the resources out there are either
What will follow will hopefully be a bit more relevant and a bit less boring. The big idea you have to keep in mind is returns are the reverse process of everything you have read so far.
You will have to tailor the following concepts to your specific company structure, accounting, IT systems and processes.
That being said there are three main areas you need to focus:
There are usually three main options to do this:
Once the products are back at the fulfillment center you will have to get them back into inventory. The process is similar to what you would do if you were to receive goods from your supplier. The main differences are:
Once the products have been checked and returned to the inventory, you will need to issue a refund to the customer and inform said customer of these changes.
And … that's it.
It may seem complicated right now but keep in mind that thousands of online store owners are doing all these things. Now that you've got the basics, you will be able to deal with most of the operation challenges you will face. If there is anything else you need to know – just ask in the comments sections bellow.
This concludes this part of this guide. This is probably the hardest and the most important part of making your store run smooth. It involves many operations, usually lots of people and it needs to be built in such a way that it will easily scale when your company is growing at double digits.
Next week we will focus on branding, designing and choosing an ecommerce platform for your online store. See you soon!
Achieving clarity in Omnichannel Retail is no easy task. Retailers, especially large ones, need to get all departments, all sales channels, suppliers and fulfillment operations on the same page.
And that’s just the first step. Then comes the IT integration where legacy systems are connected to a central management tool that handles at least inventory transparency, CRM and order management across channels.
Omnichannel Retail is not mainstream right now. It is still in its infancy. Sure, some are more advanced than others and some companies are building the future faster than others. But the truth is omnichannel is a need to be fulfilled for most retailers.
And here come the knights in shiny digital armor to rescue the day. The following 5 vendors (plus one champion) have built omnichannel retail capabilities ready to be plugged into existing retail ecosystems. They are now the go-to elite for large retailers in need of upgrading their IT infrastructure.
Shopify has started small but gradually grew into a very influential and effective company. Unlike the other entries on this list, Shopify can serve large retailers but also small and mid-sized retailers.
The company offers cloud solutions for ecommerce and point of sale operations. In terms of integrations with social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, it is the best choice by far. Its native integrations allow retailers to operate online stores, Facebook stores, buyable Pinterest items and Twitter twits that have “buy buttons” enabled, all in the same place.
Its offline sales solution, Shopify POS, enables merchants to integrate online and offline sales within one platform. The platform works on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets so a point of sale operation is extremely easy to setup and very easy to reorganize, which gives Shopify users flexibility.
A great aspect of using Shopify is the fact that it offers great customization options, as well as a growing community of developers and designers you can tap into for customization needs. For example The Theme Store offers thousands of both free and paid themes. You can easily extend Shopify with third party apps and choosing and installing one is really easy to do. The Shopify App Store lists a myriad of apps which can be installed with a simple click.
And if you are a larger retailer, Shopify offers you the Enterprise option, with the support and scalability expected from such a product.
If this sounds interesting, you can start a Shopify free trial and get started in a couple of minutes. I highly recommend this solution as the best return on investment on this list.
Shopatron was founded in September 2000 by Ed Stevens and Sean Collier. Since then, it has evolved into an integrated SaaS platform that connects offline and online orders management, making it easier for customers to purchase from retailers.
The company offers specific omnichannel solutions, most important being:
Shopatron targets midsize retailers and its main benefit is the advanced order routing. The platform combines online and offline sales and claims inventory visibility across channels.
NetSuite was already rocking a great SaaS ERP product and a fully flavored ecommerce solution when it acquired OrderMotion in 2013. Now the company can provide inventory management across channels, a single customer view, business intelligence data and omnichannel order management.
The company, among the first to bet on SaaS platforms, is now one of the fastest growing companies in the field, closing 2013 with $414 million in revenue. The revenue is up 34%, which is a big win for the company initially backed by Larry Ellison.
NetSuite started as NetLedger, envisioned as an online accounting tool, that later turned to an wider array of company management tools.
The past two years have been very active for NetSuite in terms of omnichannel related acquisitions. In 2013 it acquired Retail Anywhere, a POS solutions company. In 2014 it acquired both Venda, an ecommerce SaaS company, and eBizNet Solutions, a company focused on WMS (warehouse management system) solutions.
Netsuite has decided omnichannel is a perfect mix when it connects companies focused o separate blocks in the retail chain.
PayPal is not the only jewel in eBay’s pocket as it seems. eBay Enterprise (formerly known as GSI Commerce) is one of the fastest growing and biggest companies providing technology and consultancy for omnichannel retail.
The company delivers four big solutions to its customer base:
Unlike the other companies on the list, eBay Enterprise goes beyond software integration and into marketing and operations. In terms of retail solutions, eBay Enterprise provides support for commerce integration across channels. The company integrates the main sales touch points, with the help of its omnichannel tools:
The omnichannel operations tools cover a lot of ground and can be used in fulfillment operations, customer care and store based fulfillment.
IBM stands for a lot of things and among them it had to be omnichannel retail also. The tech giant offers technology to retailers in need of:
Its Websphere Commerce solution connects both online and offline sales through its different versions. It handles cross-channels inventory visibility, distributed order management and scales as you would expect from IBM.
At the core of IBM’s order management and inventory tools you’ll find components IBM acquired in 2010, when it purchased Sterling commerce. The transaction cost IBM $1.4 billion but brought in 18.000 global customers.
The Websphere commerce is a great fit for large companies and powers some very well known brands, but it is somewhat a not so great fit or midsize retailers.
Hybris, now a part of SAP, is probably the best fit for omnichannel retailing. Hybris is a dynamic company focused on growth and delivers constantly on market needs.
The omnichannel solution is scalable and built on a modern and flexible architecture, that allows interaction with all interfaces. Its order management solution, inventory and commerce application are built to work together seamless and easily connect with other systems.
Hybris’ solutions work both B2B and B2C and can handle inputs from multiple inventory sources and outputs on multiple sales channels. Moreover, the solution features a central content management system that enables retailers to push content across a multitude of interfaces.
As of 2013, Hybris is a part of SAP, making it a global powerhouse connected to the world’s most popular (well, at least used) ERP.
So that’s it – these are the best of breed. Of course, there are more out there that deliver great products and I could name Intershop, Demandware or even Oracle. They, however are less inclined to omnichannel or have a really new found love for omnichannel retail. The vendors mentioned above are leading the pack in omnichannel retail implementation, especially for large customers.
So why not bet everything on ecommerce? Why change direction again and include those “old” brick and mortar stores, and warehouses and such? Why build omnichannel retail facilities?
Short answer: because the customer is not a robot. The customer does not have to shop online. It will shop online when it feels better.
Ecommerce is indeed a revolution in the way we do business and indeed it has changed the retail landscape but consumers still exist in the physical world. Consumers do spend time online but they also walk by store fronts, they like to touch the products they buy and they like to see how fashion items, for example, look like in real life.
That means that real life stores will continue to exist. But so will online stores, sales call centers, interactive kiosks and marketplace outlets.
Retailers need to figure out how to connect all these channels. This new wave of customer centric retail is called omnichannel retail. The term means that no matter the sales channel, everything behind the scenes is connected. The inventory is universally available to all stores. The customer info is available on all channels also, so he or she can be instantly recognized and offers personalized. Product info is also available cross channels but most important – Fulfillment can be managed on all possible points so as to serve the customer in the timeliest and most effective manner.
One of the biggest challenges in omnichannel retail is fulfilling orders cross channels. Today, retailers that deal with both online and offline sales have to split fulfillment in two separate areas, each with specific operations.
The first is offline fulfillment, namely what happens in brick and mortar stores. Offline sales have been optimized to run on a pretty specific supply chain, not very flexible. It starts with the manufacturer, continues with forwarding merchandise to the wholesale buyer and then products end up stored in the retailer’s warehouses and stores.
Because ecommerce came as an addition to existing sales channels, it was added to the existing supply chain as a type of extra store, with its own specific operations.
However things got complicated when the web store had to split into the mobile store, the interactive kiosk, the marketplace outlet and others. Then customers wanted to buy online and pick up offline. But they didn’t stop here: they wanted to order in the store and receive home, ask for inventory info in the offline store and more. Pretty soon they started demanding it so now omnichannel retail is a question of customer service.
Retailers realized that what the retail world is facing is both a huge challenge in terms of customer demands and a huge opportunity. Those companies shifting their business strategies to fit the new, empowered consumer, will be the leaders of tomorrow.
But to do that, retailers need to develop new order management software hubs. These order management hubs need to connect all fulfillment options to all sales channels. That means that all stores, all warehouses, all suppliers, all drop shippers need to be connected and managed by an order management tool that filters orders from all stores, both online and offline, interactive kiosks, call centers, mobile apps and others.
Some companies are handling omnichannel orders just great. Others need to improve their policies and most of all their IT infrastructure. To do that they have to figure out what factors need to be taken into account when fulfilling orders. Here are the top 6 most important:
1. Proximity to customer – this obvious indicator will track which is the closest fulfillment outlet that can ship orders to customers.
2. Inventory levels across all fulfillment outlets – that includes inventory levels in the warehouses, stores, goods in consignment, drop shippers or even supplier and manufacturers. Yes, sometimes it can be more effective to ship directly from the manufacturer or the supplier than it would if the goods were shipped from the store or the warehouse.
3. Order split costs – orders that have more than one product per customer sometimes need to be split to multiple locations that have the products in stock. Products can be shipped individually or shipped to a single fulfillment facility (store or warehouse) and then shipped to the customer. Ideally, orders are fulfilled from the same point but sometimes that is not possible. In this case, the order management software should recommend the most efficient route products should take to the customer.
4. Information on customer history – fulfillment has to factor in the customer previous purchases and behavior. Retailers have loyalty programs that offer better costs and features to more loyal customer. A speedy fulfillment, complimentary gifts or just a thank you note may be outputs from the customer history.
5. Fulfillment capacity per location – estimating the maximum fulfillment load for each location can help prevent overload situations where store associates have too much orders to fulfill and can’t manage their day-to-day tasks. It can also prevent overloading several warehouses and leave others with zero workload, just because a specific area has placed more orders.
6. Seasonal fluctuations – stores get really crowded on holidays and store associates are way better answering customer questions than they are packing orders. Seasonal fluctuations need to be taken into account when implementing omnichannel retail.