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Takeaways from the holiday peak season: is it time to automate?

Distribution grocery retail labor seasonality trends

Holiday sales figures seem to reach new heights each year. According to Adobe, Black Friday sales in 2017 climbed to $5.03 billion – a sizable jump from 2016’s $3.34 billion. 2018 set a whole new record with $6.22 billion. It’s during this peak time of the year that orders seem to continuously flood in, putting a heavy strain on the warehouses and distribution centers that have to fulfill them.

No one feels the pains of order fulfillment during the holiday peak season more than facility managers and staff in manual warehouses. Managers need to figure out the best way to coordinate warehouse workers, who have to run up and down the aisles, bend and lift boxes, and pick and pack orders to get everything out the door on time to meet customer expectations. It doesn’t help that many of these facilities are running short-staffed and finding temporary staff for the season can be challenging.

If you run a manual warehouse and struggled to keep up during the last holiday peak season, it may be time to consider automating some of your operations. Here’s how automation can help you take the stress out of the holidays.

Better manage seasonal products

Warehouses often have to deal with a surge in the number of SKUs due to the addition of limited, holiday-time products – on top of an increase in inventory due to heightened demand. With more goods being stored and retrieved, it’s easy for operations to get overwhelming and lead to ineffiencies. Automation via a goods-to-man picking solution is ideal for these situations.

A goods-to-man solution provides storage for a wide range of SKUs and rapid handling of items when needed. The system brings the products stored in totes straight to staff at order-picking stations for faster fulfillment – up to six times faster than manually possible. What’s more, it integrates seamlessly into existing operations, so other products can continue to be handled manually by staff or other systems without disruption.

Reduce order processing time

Customers always want their orders fast – no matter what time of the year – but the pressure is especially high on companies during the holidays. The speed and accuracy of automated materials handling systems enable warehouses and distribution centers to shorten their order processing window and get more orders out in a single shift.

Thus, they can provide greater customer service through later order cut-off times and still make deliveries in time for the holidays. Further, they can offer greater geographical reach due to earlier dispatch, even same-day deliveries, and longer shelf life for perishable products.

Improve hiring and training of seasonal staff

The most common approach for warehouse managers to address the labor shortage around the holidays is to hire a large group of temporary workers in the months leading up. But this tends to create a whole new set of challenges around finding employees – in a job climate where not that many people are looking for warehouse jobs – and training to get them up to speed in a limited period of time.

But by automating a segment of operations (a systems provider can assess and consult what products are ideal for automation), warehouse managers can minimize the number of temporary employees needed around the holidays. With less seasonal workers required in the warehouse, they can better vet the ones they do hire and dedicate more efforts to training them. The warehouse runs smoother and there is a lot less stress on everyone during the holiday months.

If online sales figures from the past few Black Fridays are any indication, the number of holiday orders will only grow with each year. Likewise, the order fulfillment challenges will only get tougher for warehouses still relying completely on manual operations. So, if your warehouse struggled to keep up during the holiday peak season of 2018, it’s time to start seriously considering automation and prepare your facility for the coming year.

Author Kai Tuomisaari

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