Through the looking glass: six predictions for retailers and supply chains in 2021


2020 has been a tough year for all businesses, but the retail sector has taken an especially hard hit. With a vaccine expected imminently, 2021 brings fresh hope for the embattled retail industry, but the continued rise of ecommerce means that many of the challenges faced this year will likely be here to stay in the longer-term.

Alex MacPherson, Director of Solution Consulting and Account Management, Manhattan Associates, outlines six predictions for the future of delivery and warehousing in 2021.

1. Meeting labour challenges with man and machine 

2020 has seen unrivalled volumes of ecommerce orders passing through warehouses and in 2021 this trend is set to continue. This will bring the issue of labour further into the spotlight and highlight the need for organisations to diversify their labour pools with the use of automation and robotics. In 2021, you can expect organisations to continue to invest in greater automation and more integration between man and machine within warehouses in order to increase capacity and facilitate faster store replenishment in order to meet the exacting requirements of customer using ecommerce.

2. Hiring help to manage times of peak 

While automation and robotics will become far more commonplace in warehouses in 2021, some retailers will still opt to use this technology on a part-time basis. The benefits of pay-as-you-go ‘hired’ robots to support peak trading times will become customary in 2021 as retailers not only cope with increased percentages of ecommerce orders, but (hopefully) the return of traditional peak times too.

While many retailers might have previously considered temporarily adding in automation or robotics as an admin and technology integration nightmare, a flexible, scalable and adaptable Warehouse Management System (WMS) can easily keep the part-time help (human or cobot) in check. 

3. Streamlining returns to gain efficiencies 

The rise in ecommerce orders has also resulted in an increase in an unfriendlier associated element – returns. Traditionally reserved for the start of the year when retailers would prepare themselves for an onslaught of Christmas returns, retailers must now prepare for higher volumes of returns throughout the year.

Streamlining the returns process is key to ensuring bottom-line profit are not eroded too much. An effective WMS can help to streamline the returns process and also means that returned inventory can be made available for shops or online channels in double quick time too.

4. Giving consumers a courier choice 

In 2020, retailers have had no choice but to expand their delivery options in order to provide the best customer experience. In 2021, we’ll see these choices expanded even further. Many consumers have become accustomed to (or even made friends with!) their favourite delivery driver, or mode of delivery and in 2021 we’ll see these relationships go from strength to strength.

5. Balancing convenience with sustainability 

The expansion of delivery options will force consumers to pay more attention to the sustainability choices they make in 2021. With retailers keen to get their goods delivered to their customers quickly, 2020 has seen next-day delivery become the norm, with an increase in delivery subscription models, as seen with ecommerce retailers such as ASOS and Pretty Little Thing.

In 2021, however, we will see more consumers weighing up the benefits of quick deliveries and convenience against the impact their purchasing and delivery decisions are having on the planet.

Customer experience research from KPMG recently found that 58% of consumers were concerned about climate change, and with many retailers already making serious commitments towards sustainability efforts, we will undoubtedly see this issue high on brand and government agendas as normalcy (hopefully) returns in the Summer.

6. Investment in tech continues

While mainstream drone deliveries might not have taken off quite yet (pun fully intended), investment in tech is still on the rise. Contactless was an essential component of in-store shopping this year, and greater investment in tech such as last-mile delivery robots and wearable barcode scanning is not only facilitating this but showing how innovative the retail and logistics sector really can be.

In 2021, we will undoubtedly see greater investment in a range of technology to benefit the retail space: from investments in big data and analytics platforms to extract more valuable customer marker data; to robotics and automation developments in warehouses and the last mile of the delivery process; to an uptake in cloud-based platforms that improve the internal processes of new initiatives like dark stores or micro-fulfilment centres, organisations big and small will be looking to make investments in intelligent technology.

Add a Comment

No messages on this article yet

Editorial: +44 (0)1892 536363
Publisher: +44 (0)208 440 0372
Subscribe FREE to the weekly E-newsletter