The warehousing and fulfilment industry was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Retailers began taking 1.5 days longer than usual to fulfil orders and efficiency slowed down.
But while the future was horribly uncertain when the pandemic first struck in March 2020, an eCommerce post-crisis world is now emerging – and it could be good news for fulfilment.
Indeed, eCommerce and fulfilment are now finding their feet again. Of course, nothing is perfect and nothing is the same as it was. But as ever, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers are adapting to ever-changing situations and learning how to go about fulfilment in the world after COVID-19.
If you’re unsure what to do from a distribution perspective, I totally sympathise! It’s tough. But this article is here to show you what we’ve learned about fulfilment post-crisis so far. Let’s make a start.
Work With a Third Party Fulfilment Company
Self-fulfilment may have suited companies before COVID-19 hit, but it’s an increasingly challenging path now. It’s rarely an organization’s main strength, it costs money, and it comes with extra (fixed) expenses that can drain your finances.
The best solution? Work with a third-party fulfilment company if you aren’t doing it already.
A third-party fulfilment company (3PL) removes a massive burden off your shoulders. They help you to keep up with demand, can help you in the event of a particular geographical location being closed down due to the virus, and they don’t even have to cost too much.
Even better, 3PLs are classed as essential services – which is exactly what you want post-crisis. And because fulfilment is literally what they do, you can be sure that you’re working with experts.
When scouting around for a third party fulfilment company to work with, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Try to balance fair shipping rates without necessarily looking for the cheapest. As with anything, cheap often = poor quality service.
- Find one that offers a number of integrations, such as order management systems, which are designed to help you track your orders from purchase to shipment; returns software, such as ReadyReturns, which smooths over the returns process so that your customers don’t end up with a major headache (perfect for customer retention!); as well as EDI systems that make it super easy for you and your 3PL to securely exchange documents, including delivery notes, invoices and purchase orders.
Make Your Warehouses COVID-19 Compliant
To ensure you’re able to maintain your fulfilment operations as much as possible (while avoiding extensive downtime), it’s really important that you comply with the COVID-19 guidelines. Doing so means you’re doing the right things, and it will allow your business to keep running smoothly, while also ensuring the safety and wellbeing of your employees.
For example, you should look to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to your staff. This includes disinfectant products, gloves, masks and hand sanitiser.
You should also make it clear that your team needs to follow good hygiene guidelines to help stem the spread of the virus, such as washing their hands often and refraining from touching their face.
You can step up your cleaning frequency, too. This means routine cleaning of workstations and workplaces in your warehouses, as well as wiping down surfaces often. For information on how to clean your workplaces during COVID-19, you can check this guide from WHO.
Remind staff that they have a duty to remain at home for at least a week if they experience symptoms as well, while also enforcing the six-foot social distance rule inside your warehouse.
Increase Your Fulfilment Options
Before COVID-19 hit, it was normal for an eCommerce company to have one, maybe two fulfilment options. The idea was to have as few warehouses as possible while still attaining service objectives.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has completely changed the game. What happens if your one fulfilment option got a positive case of coronavirus?
As local restrictions alter, demand will go up and down in the U.S. Just one positive case of the virus can shut down a whole fulfilment centre. If this is your only fulfilment option, you’ll be in serious trouble.
Not just that, but the post-COVID-19 world has seen such a huge increase in demand for online shopping that, for many eCommerce stores at the moment, it feels like Black Friday every single day. This can be incredibly taxing on your fulfilment options.
The post-crisis world, then, means eCommerce companies need a more complicated fulfilment network. A single option looks fine on paper, but just one positive test puts you on the canvas for a few weeks. As such, it’s a good idea to find a 3PL that offers
multiple fulfilment centers across the country. This not only allows you to avoid business shutdowns if a 3PL can’t function due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it also means you benefit from distributed inventory (inventory that is split across numerous fulfilment centers) and reduced shipping costs and faster delivery (delivery time is cut when you have numerous points of distribution).
You can have more than one 3PL but it’s really important that you are upfront about everything before you enter contract negotiations. Discuss your wants and needs so that the terms and conditions of your contract work for you, as well as your 3PL.
In the event of a disruption to your supply chain at one of your 3PLs, it’s important to have access to all the information you need in order to react quickly. For example, if you know what sites and suppliers are at risk, you’ll then be in a position to source capacity and inventory from an alternative site as quickly as possible.
But you could also discuss with your 3PL if they have alternative sites should one of them be forced to shut down temporarily, as well as how quickly they would be able to site shipping from the alternative site.
Another option is to use the Shopify Fulfilment Network, which strategically distributes your inventory across multiple locations.
Find a Fulfilment Partner That’s Equipped To Scale
As mentioned, retailers were beset by shipping delays during the height of the pandemic, whether that was down to warehouses being closed or staff being taken sick. To make the situation tougher, online sales grew sharply.
This all puts pressure on eCommerce stores to fulfil orders in a timely manner. The thing is, indicators show that growth is expected to accelerate. Because shipping is so important to the customer experience (and therefore your sales) it’s important that you prepare to scale by working with a fulfilment partner who’s also ready to scale. A fulfilment provider that thrives on this kind of thing (sudden spurts in demand due to the pandemic) is essential to have by your side. To evaluate this potential in a fulfilment company, it’s important that you communicate with them before entering into a contract. Ask them if they are equipped to take on extra inventory if your business experiences a growth spurt, and discuss with them their planning and forecasting to see if it matches with your own in terms of labor services.
Take a look at the size of their warehouse(s), too: Is it large enough? Will it be able to cope with extra demand? And how about the size of their staff – do they employ enough people to be able to scale with you?
If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught eCommerce stores, it’s that they don’t always grow linearly. Instead, they jump forward unexpectedly – and this can be disastrous from a distribution perspective. So when shopping around for a fulfilment partner, find one that is used to high pressure situations, and which has a track record for fast turnarounds, too.
eCommerce as a sector performed well during the global pandemic. Retailers were forced to close their brick and mortar stores and work on their online stores, and consumers continued to make purchases.
Post coronavirus-crisis, this shift in behaviour is expected to continue, with online shopping set to jump from 32% to 37%. As such, there’s really no going back and the decisions you make now regarding fulfilment can make or break your future operations.
Use the tips in this article to improve the way you go about fulfilment in a world after COVID-19 so that you’re able to keep selling and shipping without harming your business.
Will Schneider is the founder of insightQuote, a match-making service for B2B services, and writes informative posts about fulfillment services at FulfillmentCompanies.net. He is passionate about helping businesses find the right solutions to improve their operations. When not working, Will enjoys coaching youth basketball.