E-Commerce business model is growing by leaps and bounds. New business first open online and then go for brick and mortar stores, if they want to. Opening online store is easy, fast and very cheap. However, it comes with it’s own challenge of distribution and storage. Storage in terms of warehouse, the place where inventory is stored. This is probably the only last brick and mortar link remaining in the ecommerce business model. Managing the warehouse efficiently is one of the few tricky things in running ecommerce business. Whether a 3PL or in house, the warehouse can either be a capital locking, uncontrollable monster or fast and efficient business differentiator. Here are some of the best practices to help run the warehouse more efficiently to get that edge.
- Invest in Technology: Invest in a good Warehouse Management System (WMS). A WMS is not just for tracking inventory levels and SKU locations. Today’s WMS can do lot more, with increased focus on automation, order streaming, picking order items etc. You can pick up items from one location for successive orders at one go, instead of coming back to same location for another order just after a few minutes. Define the batch size of orders and pick up all items from that SKU for all orders in that batch. Segregate them at order packing line. It’s much faster. Similarly integrate WMS with advanced Transport Management System (TMS). Get the two working together and reduce the time that you inventory spends waiting for the truck at load bay. Similarly invest in a good RFID solution. It should track the item from order line item to SKU location pickup to packing to dispatch. With thousands of items and thousands of orders, RFID solution becomes a necessity just to ensure a six sigma quality standard.
- Embrace Chaotic Warehousing: That’s how Amazon is doing it. With advanced warehouse management system in place, there is no need to spend hours planning and defining a logical process to decide where to stock the new SKU. Just dump it in the most easily accessible location and feed the location in the system. When the order comes up for that SKU, WMS knows where to pick it from. Whether manual or automated, once you know the location, you just need to run and pick it up. If it’s a good warehouse management system, it will tell you to relocate the fast moving SKU closer to the packaging line to reduce pickup times. It should do this during routine maintenance period. That’s one more good reason to invest in WMS.
- On demand warehousing: World is moving towards on-demand strategy. That is the key to whole ecommerce business strategy. Warehousing for ecommerce can be no different. To stay competitive every cost must be variable. That includes warehousing cost. As the demand for different product changes, the requirement for warehouse space changes. Different warehouse facilities are needed in different area requirement depending on the changes in customer demand. It will vary with seasons, festival period, promotions and campaigns and other events. Warehouses can only stay relevant to their ecommerce clients by providing the service on as need basis. After all it’s just space that your competition can also provide quickly.
- Serve all needs under one roof: Historically, warehouses were divided by various verticals. Different warehouses were used for brick and mortar retail, ecommerce and for B2B. Separate shippers were operating for small packages, less than truckload shipment (smaller trucks) and full truck load shipments. However, with push towards lower cost products, lowering other associated costs such as storage and transportation has become essential to remain profitable. Utilizing warehouse space for all kinds of orders (which are not so different in reality) makes best utilization of space. Using same shipper for all your needs gets a better deal from the shipper, getting maximum bang for your buck. Remember, two half trucks can be combined to make a full truck load to get volume advantage in shipping. Most shippers are anyway combining various services to stay cost effective. There is no reason why a ecommerce business should not take advantage of this.
- Batch Picks instead of individual orders: For a large warehouse, that stocks thousands of small SKUs, doing rounds to pick individual order items takes significant time. Instead, club your orders in batches. Create a batch of similar orders, and make it a manageable batch. Pick the items for whole batch at once, in single go, in single cart. Sort the batch into individual order at packaging line. This will be a little tricky if you do it manually. But still doable if your operations are small. This becomes absolute must for large scale operations. With WMS and radio Frequency tracking, you virtually eliminate the possibility of missing an item for a particular order and save time for doing multiple frequent trips to same SKU location. WMS will also create a batch of similar orders to pick up order items in one go. That’s one more case in favor of WMS.
- Use metrics: Time to dispatch from the receipt of order is well known metric. But everyone has got that to almost perfection. (if you are still struggling with this, leave everything else and get this in order first, if you even want to stay in business). Measure everything that you do. Accuracy of orders, returns due to various reasons, defective pieces shipped are first level of metrics. Dig deeper. Measure time to assemble an order, time to pack, revenue per unit of warehouse area, profits per unit of area, profit per employee etc. All these measures will help you not only in identifying the bottlenecks, but also highlight the areas of improvement that can improve your turnaround time and reduce costs. Warehouse business is high transaction, low value per transaction business. Every opportunity to increase efficiency and reduce cost must be grabbed. Metrics help you do that.
Warehouse business has become very competitive business. With easy flow of capital and good connectivity and multiple transportation options offered by various shippers, the location of the warehouse has become almost irrelevant. It offers marginal advantage at best. This means that to stay competitive, the warehouse needs to improve its operations and offer real business benefits along with the cost advantage. Warehouse must invest in technology and take benefit of changing business environment to offer flexibility that e-commerce business needs of them.