Efficiency Essentials for Order Fulfillment

Continuous process improvement strategies can make or break businesses in the order fulfillment industry. But with day-to-day operations as complex as they are, it can be challenging to rethink processes in order to find and fix inefficiencies. If you find yourself struggling with improving your fulfillment capabilities, stop and look closely at these essential areas.

Costs per order

Group and measure your fulfillment expenses into categories of

  • Freight
  • Management
  • Direct and indirect labor
  • Facilities (including operating expenses like utilities and security)
  • Shipping supplies

By understanding the financial impact each area has, you'll be better prepared for identifying where improvements will net the greatest ROI. Since freight expenses are usually greater than all of the other areas combined, renegotiating with carriers for better rates is a common starting point for improving cost efficiency. Enterprise shipping systems (like what we provide to our clients at Fulfillment Works) are excellent for streamlining this process for ongoing freight cost optimization.

Time costs

Analyze your service workflows and their performance metrics. Compare your metrics with industry averages to see how you measure up. Similar to understanding your costs per order, the goal here is to hone in on the areas that will benefit the most by improving efficiency.

Space utilization

Optimizing the layout of your facility and how you slot inventory can yield major efficiency improvements. Be sure to periodically review your slotting assignments to account for feedback from pickers or changes in order volume.

Growth strategy

Consider whether opening more distribution centers would help you reduce shipping costs and delivery times. Strategically located DCs put inventory closer to customers, which improves sales through better satisfaction rates. In most cases, an in-house multi-DC network is not cost-effective to implement – but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the logistical advantages of a new distribution center. For many companies, outsourcing fulfillment to a third-party logistics provider (3PL) is a better way to efficiently set the stage for rapid growth and improvement of services. Since 3PL providers already have robust distribution networks established, they can help clients ship products to more customers, faster and at reduced cost.

How to Shop for Warehouse Facilities

Most folks think of warehouse buildings as big empty rooms for sale or lease. But if you've ever considered expanding your ecommerce business by opening or moving to a new distribution center, you know there's a lot more to those "big empty rooms" than meets the eye. Before touring potential properties, identifying your space requirements in detail is crucial for finding facilities that meet your needs today, and in the future. When shopping for warehouses, keep the following ideas in mind to help you find facilities that will fit your space and functionality requirements.

Cubic feet

In product fulfillment and distribution, the height of a warehouse is just as important as its square footage. A low ceiling building obviously requires many more square feet of footprint space to have the same cubic capacity. Use square feet when planning how much space is needed for all department functions (staging areas, packing stations, office areas, etc.). Use cubic feet when planning bulk storage areas - making sure to account for your maximum pallet height, the total number of pallets you are planning to store, and the minimum clear height required by local regulations.

Building shape

Finding a building with the right amount of cubic space doesn’t mean much if it’s arranged in a sub-optimal footprint. Consider how the warehouse’s shape will influence space planning, workflow, and peak productivity. For example, a long, narrow, or L-shaped building may negatively affect the flow of merchandise, create congestion points, and extend travel time for pickers.

Lot size & expansion potential

If you were to expand a facility in the future, what’s the maximum footprint you could achieve? Would there still be sufficient space for employee parking and shipping truck access? If you’d only be able to expand linearly, beware of creating a sub-optimal building shape.

Environment

Certain types of products and warehouse devices need stable and clean environments with minimal exposure to things like dust, temperature swings (which create condensation), humidity, and excessive heat. Evaluate facilities for the quality of climate control units, airflow, ambient temperature, and maintenance requirements for minimizing dust and dirt.

Back Office Efficiency for Ecommerce Businesses

Expanding an ecommerce business is more than just expanding product catalogs and opening more distribution centers. The administrative strategy and operational support functions of your back office are vital – and their capabilities need to scale alongside business growth for overall success. In this blog post, we'll cover some fundamental elements to consider when evaluating your current back office's capabilities and ensuring they keep pace with the growth of your business.
    

Customer Relations

You need more than just a well-designed website to provide a great customer experience. Accessible and attentive customer service shape the final perception of unsatisfactory experiences and are a must for long-term success – so it's critical to assess your company's approach to customer relations from multiple angles and improve where necessary. Periodically review customer service call monitoring stats, product reviews, and fulfillment reporting you have in place and look for gaps to fill. If your reporting doesn't identify any ongoing problems, you may be able to find new growth opportunities through customer satisfaction surveys.
    

Taxes & Accounting

Tax laws and financial reporting requirements relevant to ecommerce can be more difficult and time consuming to manage as your business expands. Evaluate whether the software, staff, and strategies you’re using to maintain compliance are "right sized" for your current, and future, business goals.

Billing & Invoicing

Providing multiple payment options for your customers certainly has its benefits, but it can add complexity to back office operations. Verify your level of protection from payment fraud, optimize your chargeback management process, and ensure you are able to efficiently process refunds for all of the payment methods you accept.

Data Reporting & Analysis

Data plays a big role in the decision-making process for product expansions/reductions and is important for growing your audience and sales numbers. You’ll need to make sure your warehouse management solution can provide this data in actionable reports that can provide clear insight into the future of your business.

At Fulfillment Works, we support our clients’ back office operations with Manhattan Active™ Supply Chain software, which provides enterprise-level solutions for all of the above areas (and then some). To learn more about how we can support your business growth behind the scenes, contact us today.

In-House Expansion vs. 3PL Services

As your ecommerce business grows, the pressure increases to obtain more SKUs, staff, and facility upgrades. There are two paths you can take to invest in your growth: in-house managed expansion, or outsourced expansion through a third-party logistics provider (3PL).

Generally, your available resources, immediate needs, and planned rate of growth all factor in to deciding which path offers the better ROI. Since each strategy has its pros and cons, choosing between the two can be harder than it sounds. To help you decide which expansion path is best for your business and long-term strategy, you should consider the following areas.

Packaging & kitting considerations

Do your orders require simple packaging that can be prepared inexpensively in bulk quantities, or do they demand a more complex packaging procedure? If an intricate package is part of your product’s appeal or branding strategy, it may be worth keeping production in-house to maintain close control over the process and/or avoid transitional hiccups. But, if you have no such customization concerns, a 3PL may be a more cost-effective option. Although, depending on your customization needs and the 3PL’s capabilities, outsourcing may still be a good choice. For example, at Fulfillment Works, we have lots of resources to design and produce custom packaging for our clients at minimal cost.

Human capital considerations

3PL providers usually have all the resources needed to help clients start expanding right away. If you have a small staff or your executive team lacks the experience or availability to execute on growth initiatives in a timely manner, outsourcing is typically the better path for expansion.

Technology & equipment considerations

Upgrading to a new WMS or adding new equipment to distribution facility requires a sufficient budget and an integration strategy that minimizes operational disruption. The more complicated your expansion needs are, the more difficult they will be to accomplish entirely in-house. Since 3PL providers already have the technology and equipment in place, they may be the better choice for businesses that need rapid expansion of facilities or operational capabilities.  

How to use Automation & Warehouse Management Software for Operational Efficiency

Ecommerce companies with high volumes of small orders need to be extremely efficient so that profits are not eroded by operational costs. If you can get through the initial pains of the implementation process, warehouse automation is a great operational advantage in this regard. But, you may find the ROI of automation to be underwhelming if it’s not completely integrated with your WMS. After all, since your WMS tracks and manages everything going on in the warehouse, it should also be facilitating the overall direction of your automated processes. When your WMS is synergized with strong automation strategies, you can significantly improve operational efficiency in the following areas:

Labor costs

Efficient automation will cut back on manual steps in the fulfillment process, allowing you to process more orders with less staff. However, a WMS with built-in labor management features will be required to orchestrate, schedule, measure productivity, and track labor costs across all operations.

Fulfillment throughput

As mentioned above, automation will speed up order fulfillment in general. A WMS will give you visibility into the production line and processes behind incoming product, put-away, picking, shipping, and returns. Together, you get the data needed to plan for the best use of your automated systems – pushing efficiency even further.

Order accuracy

Warehouses that rely more on manual processes than software or automation may have an order accuracy rate of 98% or lower. The day-to-day revenue loss may seems small, but it builds over time. With a WMS providing direction and automation taking action, you can expect to maintain 99.99% order accuracy.

Inventory transparency

Automation uses and provides inventory data while WMS provides data tracking, reporting, and planning features. Combined, they give you the necessary tools to enable real-time processing, eliminate errors with inventory locations, and make that information available to personnel in and outside of the warehouse.