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Three strategies for managing fulfilment spikes (without breaking the bank)

16 July 2018 / by Tony Dobson, Managing Director for Snapfulfil

In today’s ever-evolving supply chain, anticipating demand spikes can seem like shooting fish in a barrel. According to a Barclays study, 67 percent of UK warehouse managers find coping with peak periods a significant challenge, while 1 in 2 feel the same about demand forecasting. 

Chances are these fulfilment challenges will worsen before they improve. Warehouses will always have traditional “peak seasons” – for instance, the weeks leading up to Christmas or back-to-school shopping in the late summer. However, surprise peak seasons now occur regularly, as items skyrocket in popularity overnight and workers scramble to fulfil orders. Customer experience can suffer if a warehouse is unable to adequately scale its operations, but not every company has the resources on hand to respond swiftly.

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If you’d like to profit from demand spikes rather than fear them, you’ll need to re-examine all areas of your warehouse to determine how nimble each process is. Are they efficient enough that added stress won’t break your team? Consider these three strategies for managing planned (and unplanned) peak seasons: 

Everything in its (logical) place

The picking process can be a productivity black hole. The quicker your team picks items and delivers them to a packaging station, the more items per hour you can ship and, ultimately, the more profitable your operations. It pays to ensure your team can maneuver through the aisles as logically as possible – otherwise, you’ll waste resources on a rote task. 

If your warehouse management system (WMS) allows you to track purchase trends over time, you’ll be in a better position to reorganise your warehouse quickly to adapt to inventory changes. For example, you can use data to determine which items are likely to fly off the shelves in November vs. March, and move those items closer to packing stations. You can also relocate items that often sell together closer to one another, preventing a staff member from searching across the warehouse to fulfil a single order. 

You won’t be able to predict all demand spikes. However, by streamling your picking processes, you’ll develop a mindset for efficiency warehouse-wide – and you’ll have more bandwith to tackle sudden demand as it arises.

Building a better seasonal staff

You’ve likely read stories about how automation will change the fulfilment industry: robots will move through the aisles picking items, shifting pickers to more complicated roles and eliminating the need for additional staff. However, while robots are certainly a more feasible option today than they were ten years ago, most warehouses aren’t ready to make a large-scale automation investment yet. Seasonal help is here to stay. 

If your warehouse employs a significant number of seasonal pickers and packers, you should avoid under training workers, a peak season money pit. Still, spending too much time on training isn’t profitable either. During the off-season, re-evaluate your onboarding processes. If it typically takes two days to train seasonal staff, see where you can cut segments to keep training to 1.5 days. Try to assign temporary employees to simpler tasks, reducing time spent in orientation and avoiding the risk of underqualified staff incorrectly completing a crucial process. Standardise the training process to avoid burying your year-round staff in orientation activities. 

As you hire seasonal staff, inquire about their availability throughout the year, and keep track of the employees who quickly acclimate to your processes. This helps you maintain a database of staff you can call in at a moment’s notice to assist in demand spikes – without wasting time re-training them. 

Investing in flexible technology

No staff, no matter how productive, can reach peak efficiency without a solid understanding of the data surrounding their processes. A best-of-breed WMS can provide deeper insight into these data points – but sometimes user restrictions surrounding these solutions can hinder, rather than alleviate, peak season operations and scalability. 

When investigating warehouse management technology, remember to ask about flexible licensing. This feature increases the number of employees with access to the software during demand spikes without locking you in a more expensive, long-term contract. Managers can then temporarily turn some operations over to their assistants to ensure every inch of the warehouse operates like clockwork. 

Combined with flexible licensing, a best-of-breed WMS’ functionalities permit growth without a significant upfront investment. Don’t only ask your vendor about how their software will improve your operations today; ensure your WMS can grow with you tomorrow and for years to come. 

A new approach to “peak season” – whenever it might occur

Our “on-demand” economy contributes to a more volatile supply chain: customers want their orders five minutes ago, no matter how popular the item or how complicated the shipping. Demand spikes can exaggerate these fulfilment challenges. Don’t let this be a roadblock to delivering a superior customer experience. By following these three strategies, you’ll be empowered to drive greater efficiency and manage whatever challenges today’s buyers throw at you.

 

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