The future of the warehouse

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By Darrel Williams, Regional Director, Northern Europe and South Africa, Vocollect by Honeywell.

As online shopping and demand for services such as 'click – and – collect' continue to increase, retailers and other warehousing and distribution businesses will need to adapt to the shifting landscape. According to figures from eMarketer, B2C worldwide e-commerce sales will reach $1.471 trillion in 2014 – an increase of 20% over the previous year.

Retailers will invest in light, agile and scalable forms of technology, as well as their workforce to meet the increasing demand. Despite the move towards automation in some areas, many businesses are discovering that people are still the strongest, and also the most adaptable resource ever.

Technologies such as Honeywell Vocollect Voice solutions can help 'back room staff' meet increasing pressures to execute faster and shorten fulfilment times. Voice-directed pickers wear headsets, leaving eyes and hands free. This ensures that staff can be easily re-assigned to other tasks without the need for intense training. This provides the real flexibility and scalability needed by high-volume, multi-channel retailers who typically experience fluctuating demand and changing order profiles.

Looking ahead - the next five years

Consumers are likely to demand cheaper products, with higher quality and better, faster service.

Realistically this can only be achieved with investment to redesign the supply chain or by utilising specialist third party logistics (3PLs) to provide more value add for many more customers. They will be driven to become even more flexible and take their place as the discreet expert that sits behind every brand.

Buying channels will continue to evolve as further electronic systems and the Internet of Things develops. For example, commuters may be able to scan a QR code with their smartphone at the station on leaving work and collect their goods as they arrive at the station near their home. The possibilities are almost endless, but the end result will need further innovation and, once again, flexibility.

Some brands may decide that a traditional warehouse will no longer work for them and instead they may concentrate on developing and expanding a network of back of store stock rooms. If a product is unavailable in a local store it can be sourced from the next nearest outlet. Even if it has to be shipped, say half the time, at least this means it's immediately available the other half. This will all be part of the ongoing fragmentation of distribution and further underline the need for consistent and agile systems across the overall operation.

Warehousing and distribution will become even more of a pivotal topic at most board meetings with warehouse managers engaging in high-level strategic planning. Their expertise will become increasingly valuable as they make key decisions – where to hold stock, whether to engage a 3PL and so on – which have a bearing on the overall business.

As retail operations continue to evolve, people using Voice technology will be seen as an increasingly important resource providing the adaptability needed for such a fluid and dynamic environment. A more fragmented distribution and storage network will demand a more mobile and multi-skilled workforce who are able to work wherever they are needed within the enterprise.

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