Ecommerce is growing at double digits and people are spending more and more online. US Customers, for example, have spent $322 billion online in 2013 and figures add up to even more this year.
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.
Managing Omnichannel Fulfillment
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:
Most important factors in omnichannel fulfillment
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.