As the already fast-paced, high-pressure, multichannel world of retail moves into the even faster-paced holiday shopping season, it can be easy to overlook one of the most powerful keys to success — simplicity.
The thought struck me recently, listening to ShipStation’s Robert Gilbreath talk about what he’d learned from years in the ecommerce fulfillment trenches during the holiday season.
“Understand your current process,” he said during the opening of a webinar chat with Webgility’s Rob McGrorty and Martin Truitt of FedEx. “Studies show if you write something down, you learn more about it. You uncover things that you don’t consciously think about.”
It was an “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” moment presented in a webinar called “Ready, Set, Ship.” School kids for generations have been writing things down in order to better learn them. The very act of writing gives the scribbler an opportunity to question every step: Why do we do that? Is there a better way? Can steps 6 and 7 be combined?
Two times when a package is truly fulfilled
“There are two really happy times in the life of a package,” Gilbreath said, “when the customer buys something from you — yeah revenue — and when the customer opens that package and gets something from you.”
Now think of all the things that happen in between. And chart every step, said Gilbreath, who built a rich ecommerce pedigree prior to his stop at ShipStation. The steps include the physical procedures — such as gathering products and moving packages — and the digital steps, as in order processing, fraud vetting, customer communication etc.
Of course, writing things down only gets you so far. Gilbreath, vice president of marketing and partnerships, had some other suggestions, too, like thinking of the holiday shopping (and shipping) season as a marathon. And just like any big sporting event, it never hurts to practice and analyze performance.
“If you play sports, you practice, right? The shipping process is no different. And so what we like to preach there, is you do a little bit of a fire drill,” Gilbreath said.
When he was running fulfillment operations, he and his team would time a group packing and fulfilling 100 orders.
Automation can be a simple answer
“You could do that and get that down and know how long it will take per order, and then say, ‘OK, if they can do 100 orders in X time, what’s going to happen if we get 1,000 orders or 10,000 orders? Then you can make decisions around what other kinds of help are you going to need.”
Maybe you turn to an outside fulfillment company, Gilbreath said. Maybe you hire seasonal employees.
Once you’ve got your shipping procedures down and you understand the needs and how those needs scale up, it’s time to think about automation, he added. There are few aspects of ecommerce — from merchandising to call centers — that automation can’t play a role in.
“That written-down procedure is going to have pieces in it that aren’t done by a piece of software or a computer or aided in some way,” Gilbreath said.
Automation is the key to holiday happiness
Think about those and whether it makes sense to turn to machines to increase scale or efficiency. For example, he said, say you have two warehouses and one particular product is always in only one of the warehouses. You don’t want to have to manually determine what products are where every time an order comes in.
“You would want to automate it,” he said. “If an order contains product X, send it to warehouse Y.”
Automation, Gilbreath said, means you can do things at large scale — printing and affixing thousands of labels at a time. It means you can assign humans to the higher value tasks that don’t simply take brawn, but require human experience and intuition.
And maybe best of all, when it comes to retail, given its seasonal spikes, automation allows you to handle big increases in volume. Automation can supplement existing processes and help get the bigger job done.
In fact, using automation to ease the holiday load provides something of a test for merchants during the holiday season. They can see not only how machine learning tools perform in their particular businesses, but they can compare that performance with their existing ways of doing business.
Automation sounds very difficult and hard to understand,” Gilbreath said. “It’s really about making fewer decisions.”
In other words, automation is about simplicity — a way of thinking that can move things forward in surprising and delightful ways.
Photo by iStock.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.