Darrel Williams, EMEA sales director, Voice at Honeywell, considers the effect peak demand periods such as Black Friday can have on retailers’ and warehouse professionals’ supply chain operations, and how voice-directed picking and replenishment technology can offer the ideal solution.
For retailers and warehouse professionals, peak demand periods such as Black Friday – the US consumer promotion concept that has now been widely adopted by many countries across the globe – provide the ideal opportunity to secure a major revenue uplift and profitability boost. Naturally, consumers like to spend more when prices are at their most attractive, so this has to be good news for both the customer and the retail industry.
However, this type of major business opportunity can also bring with it considerable logistical challenges. These challenges can be elevated further because Black Friday is not a single day anymore, not even a week; it often maintains sales momentum over a considerably longer period. This momentum isn’t just manifested in continued high demand due to longer periods of price discount, it also involves the consequential continued challenges to the retail industry. Items need to be delivered, and in some cases returned, in huge numbers accurately and within a very short timeline.
One analogy might be to consider Black Friday as a large wave followed by another (larger) wave, (Christmas), or even an earthquake and after-shock. That initial demand surge keeps going. Retailers and warehouse professionals first need to fulfil all their Black Friday orders in an efficient fashion but more so now than ever before. We shouldn’t forget that this not only includes goods being delivered to the customer, but also reverse logistics; unwanted goods returned from the customer. This means getting stock quickly, and efficiently back into the warehouse and back on sale, as well as refunding customers in a timely manner, so they are ready to catch the next wave, or aftershock. This part of the process is so important, that it may even be the make or break of retailers this year.
So, in the modern retail environment, companies need to perform at a higher level of efficiency than ever before. After all, in the modern retail environment, achieving and maintaining customer satisfaction is of paramount importance. Indeed, securing customer satisfaction and developing customer loyalty is not just what is going to drive a company’s success and growth, it’s also what will determine whether the company continues to be able to thrive as a business over the longer term.
Therefore, a company’s existing supply chain processes demand careful scrutiny in order to balance the need to secure customer satisfaction with the need to achieve this as profitably as possible. So, it is important to put in place the right logistical backbone – a methodology that can facilitate fast and accurate picking and replenishment.
So, what is this great logistical enabler within the warehouse or DC? I believe the clear winner is voice-directed technology, which can be used for picking and replenishment, and indeed any other process within the warehouse, including returns. Voice is the most agile enabler of a trend-driven variable market, able to adapt easily to people's demands. For example, if a customer wants a more complex delivery comprising a pack rather than separate ‘one-off’ situations.
Voice also has the benefit of being hands-free and eyes free. Workers receive a clear satnav-like, just-in-time instruction via the headset, so they know exactly where to go in the warehouse and what to pick.
Moreover, voice requires very little training, meaning it can provide a completely inexperienced worker with the ability to perform to the same levels as more experienced people within a very short timeline – often within a couple of hours. This naturally has the ability to open up the job market significantly. And with the growing demand for a more casual workforce – one that can be complied within a short timeframe to meet today’s retail supply challenges – this can prove to be a Godsend.
In the case of Honeywell’s Vocollect voice offering, the user’s native language does not impact the use of the solution as it recognises the spoken words however the user pronounces them. It doesn’t matter how strong a particular accent may be, or even whether the user has a cold, voice still operates efficiently, ensuring end-customer satisfaction is assured. Moreover, Honeywell Vocollect voice has the ability to operate in a wide range of alternative languages, if this is the preferred user option.
Because customer satisfaction is sacrosanct, retailers and warehouse professionals need to be able to dispatch goods quickly and accurately in order to honour the stipulated delivery lead time, which in today’s consumer environment can be next-day or even last mile/same day. Voice can take away the headaches of peak demand by making the workforce up to 30 to 40% faster than by relying on scanner technology or paper pick lists. This is all achievable through voice’s ability to provide workers with continuous information when they need it – not all upfront so they have the challenge of remembering large amounts of information. They don't even have to write picking or replenishment data on paper or key it into a handheld device; they simply speak into the voice receiver to confirm they have completed each task following receipt of the instructions via the voice system’s headset.
There is also a sales analysis component to consider; looking at sales figures related to a range of products during the same or similar peak period in the previous year, or further back. This historical trend information, interrogated within demand forecasting & planning software functionality, can help warehouses and DCs to plan their MRP for the next big peak period and help to predict this year’s demand more accurately. This allows companies to place the most popular items in optimum positions within the four walls of the warehouse or DC so that the voice users can walk to the location quicker and pick or replenish the goods faster.
Customer satisfaction is everything in the world of retail. If the retailer provides the right level of service in terms of speed and accuracy of delivery – and even be in the position to receive returned goods efficiently and where necessary supply replacement products – then not only is the company in the best position to secure ongoing customer loyalty, but also more likely to witness an elevation in the reputation of its brand in the marketplace through positive social media feedback etc. The great enabler of all these benefits is voice.