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The Remarkable Diversity of Warehousing and Fulfillment Companies

Diversity of Fulfillment Companies
Diversity of Fulfillment Companies

Ask experts like Entrepreneur Magazine, and you might think that fulfillment services do nothing more than handle “the process of receiving, packaging and shipping orders for goods”. Yet, fulfillment services are much broader than that. In this article, we are going to look at the ways that modern fulfillment services have branched out, and in some instances, how they transitioned entirely from another form of business into a fulfillment service.

We are also going to consider the creative ways that some fulfillment services have met the challenges of being a low margin, high volume service with a lot of seasonality. This is quite important. After all, a low margin business means one in which the product or service sells for close to the price it costs to produce. They are typically required to be high volume to generate good profits, yet many fulfillment services experience a constant flux of seasonal business.

Because “necessity is the mother of invention”, many fulfillment services find ways to create more stability.

This is not to say that fulfillment services are not a good business to enter. In fact, many firms don’t even set out to work as fulfillment service providers. Instead, they begin by simply making and/or selling their products. They enjoy a bloom of success and realize that they cannot find a company to handle their needs. This is also a moment when necessity fosters growth and such businesses then turn their attention to fulfillment in addition to sales and/or production.

Investing in Fulfillment

Firms that invest in the technologies, space and staffing essential to quality fulfillment may also branch out and become a third-party fulfillment provider for other firms. Filling a need they also experienced could be a fantastic way to grow a business. For instance, a company that manufactures or sells products and handles its own fulfillment may also offer “third party” fulfillment that integrates with its own. This can offset the risks of fully dedicated fulfillment services with their seasonal ups and downs.

Keep in mind that working in fulfillment can also illuminate some niche markets or needs not being met by other providers. For example, one fulfillment company in our network in Texas, Warehouse Pro, began as a soap making firm. They also warehoused their own goods, storing as well as handling all of their soap shipments to customers. This same firm then invested in third party fulfillment because they had ample warehouse space available and had mastered the technologies used in the industry.

This same firm also expanded their offerings into manufacturing and fabricating, including some welding and fabricating and even making custom sails for boats and other vessels. They have also provided specialized services for credit card companies!

What we want to emphasize here is that fulfillment companies have much more than basic services for a website retailer. They are one of the most creative groups, finding many ways to monetize and leverage their capabilities. Should you require such things as large scale storage, customized services or even bulk shipping, they may be your ideal solution.

The Services You Might Find

Without putting on our “creative thinking caps” and getting too crazy with ideas about services that fulfillment providers might offer, let’s just do a basic run down of what you might find with one:

  • Warehouse and Distribution services – They may handle your storage and do your customized shipping for your firm. Usually, it means an entirely customized approach that includes your specialty packaging, the inclusion of additional materials, and more. Typically, you can request them to handle things in very specific ways and even offer shipping in a large number of channels.
  • Custom Packaging – Their relationships with packaging suppliers often means they can provide clients with a lot of support in finding customized packaging solutions for almost any sort of good or product.
  • Climate Controlled Warehousing – Not all items can exist happily in the sweltering heat, high humidity or freezing cold of a standard warehouse. A fulfillment provider often has a warehouse that remains comfortable and optimal for any number of product categories or types. You may not even use them as a shipping service but merely as your ideal storage space.
  • Inventory Storage – There are so many instances of a project or group requiring large quantities of inventory. They get the best rates if it is purchased at once and in bulk. Then, the problem with where to keep it as the project or business proceeds, arises. This is when creative fulfillment services can step in and offer a good solution that allows them to monetize unused warehouse space.
  • Logistics and Transportation – As groups with tremendous experience in the use of major shippers, a fulfillment service is one of the best candidates for help with the transportation and logistics relating to any number of businesses or items.
  • Manual Integration – Anyone making a move from traditional inventory management and warehousing to online sales has a lot of data to enter. A lot of fulfillment services have begun to offer this precise service. Helping you to inventory your existing materials, make sure you have SKUs for every possible item, combination or kit, and then integrating this information across your online sales platform and the warehouse or fulfillment service’s system.
  • Manufacturing – It is amazing to look at the ways that fulfillment services also integrate smaller scale manufacturing into their options. They may make displays, packaging, and so much more.

Fulfillment services are a must for those with online business eager to hand over the management of order processing, shipping and returns. They can save tremendous amounts of money, and offer a diversity of effective solutions. Don’t overlook them when you need everything from climate controlled, bulk storage to setting up an online business and shipping large amounts of goods. As a business full of fluctuations, they adapt well and have a lot of answers for many kinds of businesses.

Steps to Successful E-Commerce Fulfillment Launch on a Tight Deadline

Successful E-commerce Fulfillment Set up
Successful E-commerce Fulfillment Set up

As an online seller (or someone beginning a business focusing on online sales), you have a lot on your plate. It could be the main reason behind the decision to make a fast switch and outsource your order fulfillment. While it means handing over control to another business, it also means sparing you added costs and hassles (such as staff, warehousing expenses and more).

Unfortunately, it can also mean that you may inadvertently put the success or failure of your business into the hands of others.

How? After all, you have done due diligence about products and offer good customer service, how can e-commerce fulfillment have any negative impact? Wrong items, shoddy packing or handling, lengthy delays in sending orders…these are but a few of the glitches that can affect your bottom line.

Fortunately, we offer these simple steps to ensure you can setup up your e-commerce fulfillment segment effectively, and quickly, and without a lot of issues that could cost you some of your first customers.

The Basic Steps

Before you start sending your inventory to an e-commerce fulfillment provider and preparing to link your shopping cart to their warehouses, take a moment to review the basic steps involved with a rapid switch to new fulfillment provider:

  • Account Setup
  • Integrating Shopping Carts
  • Sending Inventory to the Fulfillment Provider
  • Ensuring They Understand Your Preferences for Sending Orders to Customers, Handling Orders and Completing Orders
  • Handling Returns

If you understand that your e-commerce order fulfillment provider is in charge of that many steps of your sales (and returns), as well as inventory management, you begin to see why you shouldn’t rush the process too much. While you can easily setup operations in a matter of days – take the time to review the steps noted, and be sure all of those proverbial ducks are in a row. Let’s spend time looking at each point in a bit more detail:

Account Setup

You are going to need to create or review the contract that will exist between your firm and your fulfillment provider. This is going to outline all of the key details and protocols. The contract should specify all of the issues that follow (below) and include any contingencies in the event of a breach of contract or other issues.

Some of the points you want to emphasize in the contract or account setup include issues like shipping/order cutoff times each day (as this can allow you to provide faster shipping times) and how you prefer communications to occur.

Your account setup also has to include specifics about communication. How and who will communicate with the warehouse and fulfillment provider? What about billing procedures, reviews and major points of contact?

Finally, a key part of setting up your account must be a proper testing period. Test ordering, test order changes and test returns. Test communications, inventory controls and all of those crucial details before launching.

Integrating Shopping Carts

Your e-commerce fulfillment provider may already have some proprietary software that could be used in your online store and which will also deal with everything from packing slips and customer communication to returns. It should also relay details to your end, letting you or your team know when items are sold, what’s going on in terms of inventory and more. Keep in mind that some of the best providers can integrate with popular platforms and shopping carts already in use.

Be sure that any previous order information can be securely transferred as this eliminates the need for clients to create new credentials. Also, you want to be sure that you can always find out where any order might be at any given moment in time. The best systems allow shoppers to make changes and updates (including cancellations) right up to the moment the item is tagged for shipping – this is something to double check if it is important to your customers.

Sending Inventory

As one of the most substantial steps in getting your new e-commerce fulfillment provider up and running quickly, we are going to dedicate a bit more attention to this part of the process.

At your end, it begins with you doing a thorough inventory and creating a master list of all of your product numbers (SKUs) and all product details. This will even include items out of stock or temporarily unavailable. Be sure you give your fulfillment provider every bit of data – even variations, sizes, colors, kits, combinations and more.

It is going to be your responsibility to coordinate the shipping of your materials to the fulfillment provider’s warehouse, and to be sure that comprehensive inventory data is included. You are also going to be tasked with coordinating and/or arranging the shipment.

Once it arrives at the destination, your new fulfillment team will have to re-inventory and then properly store the product. They are more than likely going to need the time to enter data into their system.

If you have products that require a lot of attention during selection, packing or even during returns, it may be in your best interest to arrange some sort of product training. If the fulfillment center is at a great distance, a manual may be best. However, if you feel it would benefit all involved to do in-person training, it could be a key to success. This is true in shipping, as well, and you may want to be sure the items are packaged in the way you require. If you want specific wrappings, tags and labels inside of packages, be sure this is detailed in your contract and as you setup the fulfillment process. If there are to be additional inserts or special packaging – make sure you are clear about how this will arrive, be ordered, maintained, and so on.

Sending Orders, Handling Orders, and Completing Orders

It is going to be in your hands to let your fulfillment provider know which shipping methods you prefer. Before you begin the process or transition, be sure that your chosen provider is able to handle the kinds of shipments you desire. If they are unfamiliar with international packing and labeling, this can become a serious problem. Also, be sure you are guaranteed the kinds of shipping terms you need – orders out at a specific time each day, changes made before orders are shipped, and so on.

Also, pose the question of what happens in the event of an error. What if the wrong items are shipped? What if the wrong method of shipping is used? What if inventory tracking is not done properly and an item sold is not available?

Planning for contingencies and knowing how you want specific issues handled before you begin is another key to success. You can often avoid such issues by acknowledging that they can occur and proactively troubleshooting.

Handling Returns

Will your provider handle returns? If so, what is the process they must follow? How are they to communicate issues about returns to you? This is crucial because you need to understand what is returned, why and how to overcome this costly issue. You also need to be sure customers are getting premium service where returns are concerned.

Yes, this is a lot, but if you work with a reputable firm that has experience in the process, and you use these steps, you can be up and running quickly.

The future of distribution is promising for emerging markets

Future DeliveryWe’re at a turning point in the history of distribution—think advances like sci-fi-esque drone delivery. Getting to this point took not only great infrastructure, but also some pretty big technological advances. Plus, it took us a while to get here in the first place.

In a previous article, we explored what the future of distribution has to offer. However, the future of distribution for us, in developed nations, is different than that of emerging markets.

While the major cities of developing countries generally have sufficient (and sometimes equivalent) infrastructure, electrification, distribution networks, retail outlets, and supply chains, the rural areas don’t. So the question our friends at Red Stag Fulfilment got us thinking about was: How will the future of distribution for emerging markets look as a whole?

In this article, we’ll explore the future of distribution in emerging markets, and how it just might surpass our own here in the first world.

How are emerging markets different?

Any effective and efficient distribution system allows customers to buy what they want when they want it, without unreasonable markups. However, when it comes to emerging markets, this may prove difficult given the lack of infrastructure. The quick change of pace, though, is an advantage.

First you have to look at modern cities in developing countries. Surprising to some, these newly built cities often rival our own transportation, communication, and financial systems. Here, modern-day distribution activities chug along and will surely advance as ours do.

However, in rural and remote regions of emerging markets, these systems are far less advanced and sometimes nonexistent. In some places, there’s no internet access, no banks, and no roads. So, how are these people going to become buyers in the market? And how are businesses supposed to reach them? Currently, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible. However, we may see them “leapfrog,” as Red Stag puts it, into the future.

Before any assessments on the future, though, it’s important to examine the position emerging markets are currently in.

3 challenges facing distribution in emerging markets

  1. Transportation 

    In developing countries, there often isn’t enough modern distribution for a wide variety of products. The big cities might rival those in developed nations—and even surpass it in some ways—but the rural regions often have poor roads, not enough delivery trucks and no local wholesalers.Even if the local distribution system is scraping by, it’s probably increasing the cost for the customer because everything takes more time and effort. To reach modern standards, emerging markets need to invest in not only roads, but airports and delivery point too.

  2. Marketing and communicationsLaunching a product in a developed nation is based on a formula of research. To find out the best way to market your product, you simply, and methodically, examine the people—i.e. by age, earnings, education, work history, interest, etc. In a developing nation, this is problematic, mainly because this information often doesn’t exist.

    In emerging markets, statistical data is often incomplete, inaccessible, or has just never been done. So, companies who want to break into a market have to start from the ground up.

  3. PaymentComputer and mobile payments rely on debit and credit cards, but the people out in rural areas of developing countries often don’t have access to banks. That means that even if people are given internet access or a mobile device, if they don’t have a bank account or credit card, integrated and internet sales are impossible.

    Today, our modern distribution network is all about filling ordersand fast. The fastest way to do so is by electronic payments, so if that’s not an option, fulfillment will be slow.

3 advantages emerging markets have in the future of distribution

  1. Rapid changeEmerging markets are doing just that: emerging and unfolding before us. Thanks to modern technology, the building up of their cities and infrastructure is taking a lot less time than it did for us in the developed world.

    On that note…

  2. They have the chance to establish efficient, high-tech distribution networksBecause there was no previous infrastructure in these new cities and rural areas before, establishing efficient distribution networks is actually simpler in some ways. If the new technologies of today prove to be workable, they can quickly grow, spread, and be implemented across developing nations. Emerging markets won’t have to displace, replace, or disrupt modern distribution technologies that are currently in place in developed nations.
  3. They’re mobile-connectedWhile developed countries tinkered away at landlines, the developing world often couldn’t scrape together the time, effort, and funds that it took to get that infrastructure in place. So, instead of cutting the cord and moving to mobile like we did in developed nations, emerging markets simply skipped that advancement all together and went straight to cell phones. In fact, today it’s emerging markets that are dominating mobile growth and even cell phone internet usage.

The future of distribution in emerging markets

To get insight into how distribution in emerging markets will adapt to the latest technology, we can actually look to the event above when many developing countries skipped landlines and went straight to cellphones.

This “leapfrog” event proved to be beneficial for the developing world. In the modern American home, the landline is almost obsolete, and increasingly people are shopping on their mobile devices instead of their computers. So as the developed world adapts to mobility, the developing world just builds upon it.

Essentially, this leapfrog effect could play out in distribution systems too, giving emerging markets the upper hand. For example, it might not matter that rural areas don’t have roads to be accessed by trucks. If drone delivery really pans out, these packages can be delivered regardless, since they travel by air.

In fact, it could even be better. Long distance drone deliveries would cut back on the time needed to fly, warehouse and ship out to customers, like the existing, modern infrastructures in place now.

Red Stag looks at this leapfrog effect and the major payment issue to come up with a colorful example of what an order, fulfilment, and delivery could look like in a future emerging market.

“A doctor in a small village looks at his old mobile phone and realizes that he needs a new one. He goes to the distributor website and examines the various models. He decides on a sedate black model, but with the highest amount of memory, and places his order. A window opens with instructions for an encrypted text message transferring the money for the purchase. Immediately after he sends the text, he receives a confirmation text message, and the website confirms the order and a scheduled delivery date the next day at 2:00 pm by drone.

In the warehouse, the order is received and converted to a specific black phone with the required memory. The corresponding phone RFID tag is assigned to the order, and an automated process picks the correct phone from the shelves and brings it to the loading dock. A drone arrives back from a delivery and picks up the item and the corresponding delivery address. It loads the phone and several other items and leaves.

At the scheduled time, the doctor is at the hospital, but on the way home he drops by the local store to pick up his package which the drone dropped off there. He is pleased with his purchase and visits the distributor website to give a good rating and a positive review. Despite being in a developing country, he has received his delivery more quickly than his rural counterpart in a developed country and he has paid lower transaction fees than the 3% to 5% common for online purchases with credit cards.”

In the end, the future of distribution for developing countries is promising, as long as the future technologies we’re talking about actually prove to work. Even if one of these countries is facing tough infrastructure challenges and development issues, the technology we predict for the future can surpass them.

The Best Times To Use a Fulfillment Company For Amazon Related Orders

Amazon FulfillmentIt’s no secret that Amazon is the powerhouse when it comes to online commerce. If you’re thinking of selling products through Amazon’s marketplace, you’ll want to make sure you have the preparation process figured out down to a T.

If you’ve ever seen an FBA warehouse (Fulfillment by Amazon) operation in action, it’s pretty impressive. They employ more that 15,000 robots to help retrieve products, have huge conveyor belts to transport product from storage to packing stations, and they ship 35 items every second. In fact, Amazon’s outbound shipping cost is over $1.5 billion a year!

One of the main reasons why Amazon can ship so many items each day is because they’ve streamlined their inbound process. That minimizes the time it takes to receive products and get them ready to be picked, packed and shipped. They’ve been able to streamline their receivings by passing the preparation process on to its vendors.

Failing to comply with FBA product preparation requirements may result in the vendor being charged for non-compliance and/or their products being returned, disposed of, or even blocked from future shipments to the fulfillment center.

Amazon does offer its vendors guidelines such as its Quick Reference Guide on how to prepare inventory for FBA. However, the opportunity cost of vendors preparing products for fulfillment takes away from sales and marketing. A lot of fulfillment centers—like ShipMonk, for instance—saw an opportunity and began offering FBA prep services to help vendors prepare their inventory before it’s sent to an FBA warehouse. Everything from opening containers and repackaging thousands of SKUs to simply labeling products correctly with barcodes—prepping products for FBA is essential if you want to be a successful Amazon vendor.

Here’s a list of various FBA Prep Services:

  •      Quality control
  •      Repackaging
  •      Labeling
  •      Fragile item preparation
  •      Loose products
  •      Sold as a set
  •      Boxed units
  •      Poly bagged units
  •      Case-packed products
  •      Expiration dates

Now that you understand the importance of Amazon preparation, you’re probably wondering if you should do it yourself or look to a fulfillment center for help.

The answer isn’t anywhere near cut and dried. Therefore, you’ll need to take into account the following:

Where is your product manufactured?

The best solution would be for your manufacturer to prep the products for FBA for you, but you’d have to calculate how much that affects your shipping rates. If you’re importing from China or another foreign country, you’ll probably want to save as much as you can on shipping to the U.S. To do this you’ll need to put more than 1 SKU on a pallet—which is great for lowering costs but makes the product unfit as an FBA receivable.

How many SKUs do you have?

If you have a lot of different SKUs that require different prep services, it may be too much to keep track of and stay up-to-date. Also, do you have the space and equipment to de-palletize and repack the products on pallets or in boxes for FBA?

What packing materials are needed?

If you need specific packing materials such as poly mailers, fragile item wrapping, or labels, a fulfillment center may be a great option. They have various materials in stock and may even give you a discount since they can purchase in bulk.

What’s your profit margin?

How much are you selling your products for and what are you making? If you have room in your profit margin, it probably makes sense to outsource the FBA prep service. Then you can focus your efforts on expanding your product line and/or selling more product. (Unless, of course, you just love working in the warehouse, then absolutely, you should not outsource!)

Is the risk worth the reward?

Can your business afford to have its products returned or be billed a non-compliance fee for failing to meet FBA standards? A reputable fulfillment center will include in their SLA that if something happens due to not following FBA guidelines, the fulfillment center will assume responsibility.

Are there seasonal spikes throughout the year?

You may want to prepare inventory yourself throughout the year except for the holiday season. During that time, you’ll probably want to focus on customer service and marketing. So consider outsourcing FBA prep during those busy months and then take it back into your own hands if you want to cut back on outside costs during the off season.

What can I be doing with the resources it takes to manage FBA prep?

This is the million-dollar question that only you can answer. Most business owners can manage the FBA prep process, but—will it take away from growing your business?

 

Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and General Crowdfunding Best Practices When Fulfilling Orders

crowdfunding fulfillmentThere isn’t any question that the world of crowdfunding has opened new possibilities for the world of business. If you’ve gone in this direction to promote your business and sell products, you’ll know you need supreme organization in order to ship orders properly once your campaign is successfully funded – as well as plan for any order fulfillment needs after the campaign is over altogether. The fulfillment and shipping for your crowd funding campaign will offer some interesting hurdles, as you’ll be left with a large volume of orders potentially to ship within a certain period of time – and you don’t want to disappoint your supporters.

This is why it’s important to study some crowd funding best practices to see what others have done to make fulfillment a success during this critical time. Considering you’re introducing a product for a first-time consumer base, you won’t get a second chance to make a good impression. If orders end up turning up missing or delivered late, it could severely damage your reputation before taking your startup to the next level. Things can also be negatively impacted if you manage to deliver well; yet don’t take time to protect the product from being damaged in the packaging. 

Planning Fulfillment in Advance

An important thing to know now before you start a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign is to plan all fulfillment processes before the eleventh hour. Far too many businesses think they can plan how to ship an item only after they reach their fundraising goal. Don’t fall into this trap, because you’ll start to think you can handle it all on your own and then potentially miss your deadlines.

The first decision to be made is whether you’re going to ‘self-fulfill’ or if you’ll use the services of an outsourced fulfillment company. Self-fulfillment means that you’ll be shipping all of the orders yourself. If you don’t have any funds to potentially outsource, you might be forced to use this method. Furthermore, if your overall order volume is low and/or you don’t anticipate continuing to ship products after your campaign, self-fulfillment might be the best option. However, if you do plan to continue to sell your products after the crowd funding, or if volumes will be a little larger, then using a fulfillment provider can take the headache out of shipping. There are companies that focus and specialize on fulfillment for crowd funding campaigns, such as ShipBob. They have great experience with operating these types of campaigns.

Secondly, you’ll need to figure out what your plan is for international shipping. This is a factor that many companies face as quite a few campaigns will garner backers in various countries. If there is a sizeable order volume from a particular country outside of your locale, it might be beneficial to utilize a fulfillment service in that country. If not, it will help you to understand your fulfillment costs and timing to meet everyone’s expectations. 

What Will Shipping Costs Be, Including Shipping Time?

No matter how you look at it, crowdfunding is still a business, and fulfillment needs to occur as quickly as possible. You only have one impression to make in sending your products fast to your new customers. Without planning some best practices, a lot of this can go wrong very quickly. Estimate your shipping costs and how long shipping is going to take. Know this weeks in advance before you even start doing any fundraising.

By posting this on your fundraising page, your new customers know exactly what to expect rather than automatically assuming you can take on two-day deliveries.

Creating Communication Portals With Customers

There isn’t anything worse than failing to provide communication methods for your crowdfunding supporters. If there are any shipping concerns, they need to talk to you immediately. Every one of the customers who gave you money should get top priority if they message you with a shipping problem. Be sure to open up every possible communication medium, including live chats if possible.

Always respond quickly as well if you rely on emails. Don’t make customers wait hours or days to hear back.

Planning the Order File

One best practice that helps operations run smoothly is to figure out how you’re going to translate all of the customer’s data into order information and ultimately packing slips and shipping labels. If you’re running this in house, then you might want to look into some fulfillment and/or shipping software. Oftentimes, these software programs will allow you to upload an Excel or CSV file into the system, thereby generating orders and labels. If you use a fulfillment company, they will be able to take the file and create the orders. Also, fulfillment companies will be able to integrate with your systems so that they can receive the orders over automatically.

Ensure a Pleasant and Powerful Experience

Packaging is a critical component of shipping that many companies forget to pay attention to until it’s too late. When your backers open your rewards, it’s extremely helpful for them to have a great customer experience so that they refer your product or company to others in their network or purchase from you in the future. Powerful and lasting impressions can be made with your backers by using creativity in terms of the packaging of your products. Some packaging efforts cost quite a bit, and this may or may not be in your budget. However, simple and cost effective measures can be taken in order to leave your backers with a smile on their face when they open their orders.

All in all, it takes a good amount of time and effort to plan out and execute a successful crowd funding campaign. By taking the extra time up front, you’ll save yourself a lot of pain and you’ll set your company up for future success.

Real-Time Inventory: What it Means and Why It’s Important

Real-time Inventory Management

No doubt you’ve seen plenty of analysis in the business world about real-time technologies and how it’s bringing more immediate results to companies. Whether it’s real-time metrics, marketing, or communications – bringing more immediacy to customers and business associates helps companies make smarter decisions for the future in our fast-paced world.

Similarly, real-time information is critical in your supply chain as well. At the heart of this is properly managing your inventory so your company can effectively re-order product and effectively stock product so that both excess inventory and stock-outs are avoided. The best way to get a handle on inventory is to use software that gives you real-time inventory management capabilities.

Just What is Real-Time Inventory Management?

Real-time inventory management is the process of recording sales and purchases of inventory immediately through the use of a software so that your company gains a complete picture of what’s occurring with inventory, enabling your organization to react quicker to supply chain needs. Rather than periodically updating inventory at pre-determined intervals (usually through the use of inventory counts), real-time systems record every transaction (both purchases of new stock as well as outbound orders and all of the associated costs) in real-time.

The inventory management system serves as the backbone for recording overall receipts and sales of product. For companies that work in a brick-and-mortar environment, point of sale systems provide the technology that enables real-time updates for product sales, whereas companies that sell online will be required to integrate their online sales channels with their inventory system in order to record sales. There are some enterprise level systems that bring all of these functions under one “software platform roof”. Furthermore, companies will oftentimes supplement these systems with other tools, such as RFID (radio frequency Identification) technologies or bar code systems in order to more quickly and effectively record new receipts and sales.

Benefits of Real-Time Inventory

Adding new software and/or supporting technologies to move towards a real-time inventory environment can be a significant expense for companies, so understanding the benefits of moving in this direction is critical for your fulfillment center services. As mentioned previously, the first benefit is that it allows your company to avoid stock outs and excess inventory more quickly than a periodic inventory management scenario. By updating all receipts and sales in real-time, you can tap into up-to-the-minute data, which will enable you to more effectively budget supply and demand of your product. Physically counting inventory on a periodic basis takes more time, and those delays, especially in our age of same day delivery expectations can significantly impact buyer satisfaction.

Which brings us to the second benefit of real-time inventory: enhancing the customer experience. One of the worst-case scenarios is to have a ready, able and willing buyer, only to lose them because you don’t have adequate stock for them to purchase your product in store or online. Not only does this impact your immediate sales potential with that customer, it may also have a negative impact on future sales – not only with that particular customer but potentially with others within their sphere of influence if they decide to share their disdain with others on outlets such as social media.

Third, implementing a real-time inventory system will likely bring some physical benefits to your warehouse as well. First and foremost, this method of inventory management will likely require your warehouse to become more organized. Furthermore, it will also more than likely result in less overall recounts of inventory if diligently managed.

Fourth, real-time inventory is a wonderful asset to your accounting and finance team as well. Knowing exactly how much inventory you need at the right times (and what’s left over) gives you a more accurate picture for the accounting department. Just estimating what your inventory stands at could pose a major rick to the profit reporting you do each quarter. Real-time metrics work to help catch errors immediately so you don’t experience extra downtime scoping out a problem.

Remember – Real-Time Inventory Doesn’t Guarantee Success

Just because you implement a real-time inventory system doesn’t mean that there won’t be mistakes, so knowing the potential risks will better help you avoid any potential pitfalls. For example, theft of product, mis-pick errors, damage to product and recording errors (at the receiving or picking/shipping level) can throw your inventory levels out of balance. Strict adherence to processes and procedures is critical to the success of this type of system. In particular, pay close attention to controls over the receiving process, since an error in this department will only compound problems further on down the sales process. Furthermore, a scheduled quantity of cycle counting will help assist you in more proactively catching inventory discrepancies.

A lot of times, taking the giant leap forward into real-time inventory is daunting for growing companies. Outsourcing fulfillment is a way to tap into the real-time environment without having to make the commitment to purchasing new technologies and management of the additional requirements. Professional third party fulfilment companies specialize in all aspects of warehousing and distribution and will have the necessary software to bring your company from periodic to real-time.

In-House Fulfillment: When it’s Better to Keep Fulfillment In-House and How to Maximize Performance

In-House FulfillmentMany businesses struggle with the idea of outsourcing to a fulfillment center or 3PL warehouse to help save time and money. While many businesses find benefits to this option it is not for everyone. We will outline some reasons why this is not always the best solution, and give you some guidance on how to manage your own fulfillment better. We will also provide a couple of reviews for some products that help businesses perform better on their own.

What are Good Reasons for not Outsourcing?

The first thing that probably comes to mind is cost. When profits are not high yet it might be difficult to start outsourcing fulfillment. When looking to use a fulfillment center there are start-up costs involved, storage costs, charges for movements, charges for employees that they are using to fulfill all of your business needs, etc. When there is not a lot of extra cash flow these costs can be very daunting and to some just not an option at all – especially if you have to rely upon your own time in lieu of paying a fulfillment center. Of course shipping costs can be very high for companies with a smaller order volume which is where a fulfillment center could help you save money, as these companies usually do have a better rate. Look at what costs your company is incurring for all of these services and compare them to the rates of these fulfillment companies and 3PL warehouses and you will find your answer. As a start up, you might have to boot strap it a while until you can afford the cash flow expense of an outsourced solution.

Then there are the businesses that have specific needs that entail too much work to outsource without a large potential for problems. For example, there are many different businesses that rent out clothing on a monthly basis to their customer. When these boxes get returned the clothing needs to be dry-cleaned and inspected thoroughly. Not that this is impossible to outsource, but these unique services will more than likely not be provided by many 3PL warehouses or fulfillment centers. Most outsourced warehouses ship standard goods and anything out of the ordinary could become problematic. Odd sizes and unique requests will add to the cost of outsourcing your business needs. When it comes to these niche companies it will more than likely be better to keep this side of the business under your own control.

Speaking of control, there are also businesses (and their owners) that need a little more control over their process. Outsourcing to a 3PL warehouse or fulfillment center means letting go of part of your own business. If you’ve been handling your own fulfillment and have created a working procedure for yourself, it could be difficult to let go and hand this over to another company. Most fulfillment centers have a streamlined process in order for them to best handle fulfillment for many different companies using their services. It is very important for a business owner to find a company that meets their needs as well as a good partner to work with. This may be hard to find for certain companies so maybe the own fulfillment process could be streamlined better instead of looking for it elsewhere.

How to Manage Your own Fulfillment Better?

If outsourced fulfillment isn’t in the cards, then you need to make sure you are armed with the right processes and systems to do it effectively. Anything can be managed on a very small scale, but as you grow, additional sales will expose any problems in the fulfillment process and will result in potentially catastrophic errors.
So what are the most important things to help your business? In order to be successful with in-house fulfillment you will need well-trained people and the right technology and software. It’s what all of the professional 3PLs and larger companies use to ensure success. While you may not be able to purchase robots to pick orders, certainly bar code scanning and inventory software are affordable options to significantly reduce errors.

When you look around you will find quite a few fulfillment software platforms to help you manage your business better. These software platform companies know that not every business is going to fall in line with outsourcing to a fulfillment facility. As such it can be overwhelming for you to try to find something that works right for your business. One of our recommendations would be to seriously consider other alternatives before using any shopping cart plug-ins. While these do have their pros and cons, you may run into trouble with these in the long run. The positive aspects are reasonable prices, free trial periods, no selling limits and unlimited storage. On the negative side, they may lock you into inflexible work flow processes that either set your company up for errors to take more time to process, and the customer service is sometimes erratic. They also frequently charge you with transaction fees, something you’ll see add up dramatically as your order volume rises. In addition, many of these services don’t offer refunds, bringing nothing but a money-losing risk when you need to gain the most profit. You need to find something with dependability and experience, as well as scalability. Lastly, it’s smart to avoid any service locking you into a contract, despite seeming impossible to find.

What to consider for In-House Fulfillment Software?

If not outsourcing is the right choice, you need to look beyond and see what tools you can use to make fulfillment work better in-house. You’ll need something that will fully integrate with your existing systems to avoid transition problems. In our quest to help businesses find what is the right fit for them we’ve started reviewing some of these Software platforms.

ShipStation

One option is Ship Station, which offers many different packages and pricing. For their platinum package they are charging $ 95 a month for shipping up to 6,000 orders a month. This is also entirely web-based so you only need an internet connection. However, the interface seems to be more difficult to navigate than some of the others. There are many options and it will take some extra time to find your way around but there is also a dedicated account manager as well as many forums to help you navigate the interface. It may be a little more difficult to find your way but it does offer you a way to customize your interface so you can have it set up the way you would like to see your information in front of you. Also their reporting is much more comprehensive. You can pull up reports for almost every aspect. It integrates with all of the biggest platforms as well and also syncs shipping status and sends tracking info direct to the customer. Many of the features are the same as other shipping software but there does seem to be a difference in dealing with customer service. It can take up to one business day to have certain issues resolved.

Proactive Approaches Separate Customer Service Quality in Fulfillment Companies

Fulfilment Center Customer ServiceWorking with a fulfillment company requires extensive communication to ensure that everything runs efficiently. Whether they are simply providing customer service to your team or handling a more extensive function such as direct communication with your end customers, the quality of this communication can make or break the entire fulfillment experience. What separates customer service quality in fulfillment companies is paying attention to various details you may not think about until they happen. It’s why you should look carefully at your contract before working with a fulfillment center and see how they approach communication with you. Or, discussing it over with the manager can give you an idea.

Here are some things to consider so that you can avoid having any difficulties with the service provided by your fulfillment center.

Proactive vs. Reactive Responses in Customer Service

You can quickly determine which center has the best approach to customer service based on whether they do things proactively or reactively. In the latter case, the support team may only contact you when sending you a bill, or responding when you have a problem. Using a proactive method, on the other hand, is where they’ll let you know in advance about specific issues, improvements, or savings that will benefit your company. Always be sure to ask if the fulfillment center has a proactive support team and what frequency they’ll proactively reach out to you. Another good way to determine if they offer proactive customer service is to discuss the technology systems that they use and have them provide examples of how it helps them identify potential issues, track ongoing performance, and manage email and telephone communication for your company. Ideally, you should always have a symbiotic relationship with your fulfillment provider where communication happens frequently.

Support Staff Availability

Most people have experienced poor customer service where you have to spend 10 minutes to get a hold of a live person, get put on hold for extended periods of time, or deal with representatives that aren’t able to handle the issue at hand. The same potential negative scenarios exist with your fulfillment operation unless you ensure that they have adequate support staff, training, and availability. The stakes are even higher if they are providing any support to your end customers. “Statistics show that when a company fails to respond properly to customer concerns, it all reflects badly on you, the retailer. A lousy customer response in dealing with a return could lose you a customer for life, including getting highly unfavorable reviews on influential places like Yelp,” according to Max Zitney, who runs Ships-A-Lot in Warren, Ohio.

It’s imperative you choose a fulfillment center that has support available during the appropriate business hours of your company. Most importantly, you need to have multiple contact methods as well to deal with an emergency. Methods of emergency correspondence could include text messaging, direct phone calls, using service such as Slack for transparent conversations, or standard email.

Mobile communication is equally essential, especially when you need to travel for business and can’t visit the fulfillment facility in person.

Working With Account Managers on Communication

The account manager in your fulfillment center should keep communication going on a regular basis, including messaging you at agreed upon intervals to update you about what’s going to occur. Having daily or weekly briefings confirms which items are getting shipped, which items get handled on returns, and details on warehouse procedures. If there’s any changes in technology or other procedures, the account manager should let you know so you’re aware of any slight downtime during transitions.

In addition, you should get monthly reports from this manager detailing everything from accuracy, speed, to savings they’re giving you. When the fulfillment center can save you money through more enhanced technology, it only helps you in a time when customers expect deliveries yesterday rather than today.

The Delivery World of Tomorrow

Future of DistributionYour Guide to Deliveries of the Past, Present, and Future

Pulp science fiction often gave us an image of the future that involved bio-domed malls, pneumatic tubes delivering mail directly in our homes, and milk still delivered by hand but from flying trucks. However, the true future of delivery will likely be hordes of boxes zipping through the air in flocks.

Products will get to market in automated fashions with robots doing much of the piloting, whether that’s through ocean channels or direct-to-home drone delivery. Distribution pushes ever forward to cost reduction, agile delivery, and expanded access.

Innovation has always been at the heart of each economy’s distribution model – from the Minoan civilization adopting the first aqueducts in the 2nd millennium BCE and the introduction of diesel-powered refrigeration trains on cars in the 1950s to the automated warehouses of today.

Delivery Tech That May Go the Way of the Dinosaurs

Understanding the future of delivery should start with a strong foundation of the past and of what we’re using today that we might not use in the near future. Here are two areas that we think may face an extinction event in the future.

The 1900s Wholesalers

Distribution became a specific function of businesses, and sometimes the only service offered, in the early 1900s thanks to recent increases in mass production. Creating goods quickly meant they could be sold quickly if they made it to new markets. Wholesalers stepped up to allow manufacturers to move large quantities of goods, leaving the wholesaler to make local deals, sometimes at a right of twice what they paid the manufacturer for it.

Goods-Branded Stores

You’ve read the section head and you might think that we’re crazy. I mean everyone loves the Apple store right?

But two of the most common things we buy are purchased from stores that aren’t necessarily associated with their products: food and clothing. Grocery store chains typically aren’t named after a product they carry or sponsored by a specific food maker because they simply stock too many items. The same goes for most clothing stores, which are branded separately even if they offer their own clothing line.

Amazon did this on the Web, moving us away from buying direct from the manufacturer to a more all-purpose store. And, that was the big shocker because everyone thought the Internet meant selling more goods directly to the customer.

Intermediaries actually became stronger and manufacturers have had to reduce costs because new e-commerce distributors control market access by making it convenient for the consumer.

Delivery, Meet George Jetson

Amazon is the perfect segue into the future, even if the brand is supplanted at some point, because it is among the most vocal brands predicting what the future of delivery will be.

Even as the company starts operating more delivery vans and trucks in local markets, it has openly discussed not needing the employees driving those trucks. There are a few paths forward that Amazon and others may take in the driverless future, and here are our favorites, as detailed by Red Stag Fulfillment in their article on The Future of Distribution.

Flying Deliveries

Drones are the easiest thing to point to as a future for distribution. There are already trials and some autonomous units don’t need an operator. The biggest concern is that they’re limited to about 10 lbs. with a 10-mile delivery radius, and they seem fairly easy to compromise.

Also, how will a delivery drone deal with a multi-unit home? Where will it drop off goods at an apartment building? How many consumers would buy and install a drone landing page so they could get a package?

What this may end up creating for a short time is a central location where packages are dropped off and then picked up by the user whenever it’s convenient. However, that part of the model feels old and antiquated.

Driverless Trucks

The autonomous vehicle rage makes the daily commute sound nice, but it could make the biggest impact in deliveries. Image an autonomous truck that doesn’t have to worry about HOS rules. It never speeds and can automatically adjust to road conditions or traffic updates, always with a preference for low-traffic routes.

RFID tags already provide trucks with plenty of information on cargo, so it isn’t farfetched to think they could supply trucks with delivery information when they reach a warehouse gate. It’s a more predictable and stable supply chain.

Robotic Warehouses

Full automation should be put in the “likely reality” category perhaps ahead of either drones or driverless cars. Current technology already does much of our sorting and order/inventory management. Amazon’s Kiva robots can even do some basic picking.

Manufacturers have long used cameras for quality control, so that isn’t a stretch in the warehouse either. One thing that may be difficult is recreating the custom packaging that’s taken the industry by storm. But then again, that’s just about teaching a robot proper filling order and paper-folding with a quality-check from an optical sensor.

Robots may also learn to be more delicate than humans and can have tighter controls on governance – never skimping on the bubble wrap.

Who Will Connect the Dots?

This is going to seem a little far-fetched (excuse the pun) but we think that the old-shaped, extra-sensitive or especially unusual item will be the perfect place to look in order to know that the future has arrived.

Unusual items to not be local and they don’t fit well within automated systems. They’ll have extra packaging requirements, need specific carrying instructions, have limited pre-staging options, and will require every point the supply chain to touch.

The future of unusual item shipping may involve something as complicated as specialized trucks that can bring a selection of goods to a local planning area and then have drones fly from the truck to the customer’s home. This will likely require a human driver initially to ensure that a safe and secure parking location is chosen for the delivery base.

Or, we could be looking at a more routine distribution side of the supply chain, with production taking the new route. 3D printing continues to improve and may allow manufacturers to set up local production facilities for these kinds of orders, so that geography is no longer a limiting or controlling factor.

The future of distribution is likely going to be the same kind of disruption we see in many other areas of tech. It’s exciting to think about these scenarios coming to fruiting, and perhaps more exciting to see what we didn’t expect becoming reality.

Interviewing E-fulfillment Companies: What Questions Should You Be Asking?

Questions to Ask Your E-Fulfillment ProviderShopping for any business service is a high-stakes evaluation, especially one that affects the value delivered to your customers. For e-commerce businesses, one of the critical arteries supplying the lifeblood to your businesses is the choice of fulfillment provider. After all, the chosen fulfillment company will be responsible for receiving, storing, picking, packing, and shipping your product to customers. Essentially, the fulfillment company is responsible for ensuring that the value created by your marketing team, web developers, product engineers or procurement team, and customer service representatives, is actually delivered to your consumers in the expected condition, as fast as possible, without any flaws.

WarehousingAndFulfillment.com can be incredibly valuable in assisting e-commerce business owners through the process of finding the best e-fulfilment company. However, once you have your options narrowed down to three or four potential providers, what questions should you be asking in order to reveal the company that will provide the highest level of value to your brand?

How an E-Fulfillment Company Became a Fulfillment Company

We recently had an opportunity to speak in depth with Jake Rheude of Red Stag Fulfillment – an e-fulfillment company that was born out of this exact situation. When the ownership of an e-commerce company spent years unable to find a high-quality fulfillment provider that cared as much about delivering value to customers as they did, the decision was made to attempt to build the fulfillment provider they could not find.

One of the tools used to guide the development of Red Stag was a checklist that had been developed by their e-commerce sister company, which served as a set of “interview questions” used to evaluate potential fulfillment providers. Having outgrown two e-fulfillment providers, the owners of the e-commerce company had become all too aware of terms such as “shrinkage allowance,” which are often hidden in the fine print of fulfillment company contracts. They had also experienced firsthand the repercussions of a lackadaisical workforce, long-term contacts, hidden fees, and security issues.

The Fulfillment Checklist is divided into 2 sections. The first section delves into questions related to “Reliability”. The second section explores questions around warehouse “Security.”

Checking for Reliability

There is no question about it – you must find a fulfillment provider that can consistently deliver high quality service, meeting the ever-increasing needs of your customers. In their fulfillment provider questionnaire, reliability is addressed by asking some critical questions:

  • Do you offer an Order Accuracy Guarantee?
  • If you make an error on an order, will you pay an error penalty fee on top of correcting the mistake?
  • Do you have a “no hidden fees” policy?
  • Do you offer free account setup?
  • Do you have a Technology Team available to resolve any system or technology issues?
  • Do you have a policy on inventory shrinkage or damage?
  • If any of my inventory is lost or damaged, will you reimburse me for the cost of that inventory?
  • Do you offer an Inventory Accuracy Guarantee?
  • Do you offer an Order Processing Guarantee?
  • Do you have a backup generator so the facility and systems are always online?
  • Do you have a no long-term contract agreement?
  • Is inventory received within one business day?
  • Is Your Warehouse Operation Secure?

Checking for Security

The second section of the fulfillment provider questionnaire is devoted to the security of their warehouse operations. Critical questions are explored in this section, such as:

  • Does your facility have a 24-hour monitored security camera system?
  • Does your facility security system have multiple power source backups?
  • Do you have website security with 100% uptime?
  • Does your facility have 24-hour camera coverage of every square foot of operation?
  • Does your facility have an individualized access control system with on-site management?
  • Do you do full background checks on your employees?

These are just a sample of the many questions that you can ask your potential provider before making what could be one of the most critical decisions for your logistics operations. The fulfillment provider questionnaire is conveniently crafted in a PDF document so that you can easily download and fill out. To view and download the entire PDF, click here.