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2020 Hindsight: Top 5 Takeaways for Retail Supply Chain Leaders

Well, we’ve reached the point where we can use the phrase “hindsight is 2020” literally. This cataclysmic year is officially in the rearview mirror, and we can start making sense of what we learned as supply chain leaders and professionals—and how we changed—during this pandemic. While it’s hard to limit the number, here are our top five takeaways.

1. The customer delivery experience is king.

In a world where anyone can build an e-commerce site (and in 2020, many did), marketing products online is no longer enough to generate an ongoing revenue stream. With a single click, consumers have myriad choices, which means retailers need to look beyond their digital marketing strategies to transform those browsers into repeat customers.

More than ever, it’s the customer delivery experience that gives retailers a competitive edge. In 2020, 40% of global retail professionals cited enhancing product delivery as a critical initiative.

Some brands were early to recognize this. For example, Amazon’s partnership with major retailers, in which the retailer accepts returns on behalf of Amazon, is just one example of the extent to which a company will go to improve the customer experience. And of course it goes without saying that even before this reverse logistics play, Amazon had re-defined the customer experience altogether by offering same-day delivery in some areas, for free.

There’s no doubt customers value this immediacy and convenience. Consider that 49% of shoppers say that same-day delivery makes them more likely to shop online. But even though Amazon and other retailers have successfully prioritized the delivery experience, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to accomplish. Like many modern business challenges, it’s technology that makes the difference.

Cloud multi-carrier shipping solutions enable companies to efficiently ship goods worldwide and improve the customer experience by:

  • Leveraging multiple carriers to offer fast and flexible delivery services
  • Increasing delivery transparency and providing proactive responses to unwanted delivery events
  • Ensuring carrier compliance to avoid delivery delays due to incorrect labels and documentation
  • Rate shopping with contractual partners to select the best carrier service for each shipment according to customer preferences and business rules
  • Identifying and quickly on-boarding new carriers to better leverage last mile services and expand into international markets
  • Using Business Intelligence (BI) tools to identify poor-performing carrier partners

2. Carrier Capacity can be a hot commodity.

Most industry experts expected pandemic-fueled online shopping to increase the pressure on carriers, but few predicted volumes would skyrocket to the point major carriers such as UPS, FedEx, and DHL would stop picking up parcels from major retail customers with “no exceptions” during peak season.

If anything, this underscored how important it is for shippers to build transportation networks that include regional and local carriers and embrace multi-carrier parcel shipping solutions that enable real-time rating and rate shopping across the transportation network. Those who prepared diligently to adopt this model in 2020 prior to peak season, found themselves in a much more manageable position with the ability to consume whatever capacity the major carriers had to offer them and then tap into other carrier services to effectively ship the rest.

3. Omni-channel is omni-critical.

While brick-and-mortar stores were closed for business, merchants had to implement curbside pick-up (BOPIC) and ship-from-store as a solution, often using their stores as additional warehouses. This allowed stores to take the path of least resistance: they could use carrier services to reach nearby consumers quickly or make hand deliveries curbside, eliminating the need for a carrier service altogether. Moving forward, many retailers say they will plan to keep distribution strategies such as ship-from-store and BOPIC in place.

For many shippers, how rapidly and efficiently omnichannel distribution can be accomplished depends on how well mission-critical fulfillment technologies have been integrated within the supply chain. Shippers using standalone systems in their supply chains will confront more challenges. Without connected systems working as one, shippers incur more costs and require more manual labor to fulfill orders. Lacking the inventory visibility and other controls afforded by integrated systems, these shippers cannot deliver the same level of customer service as their high-functioning, agile competitors.

On the other end of the spectrum, shippers with supply chains that are fully integrated benefit from inventory visibility and controls throughout the organization and can quickly augment omnichannel capabilities with specialty software. These merchants require little or no human involvement to deliver hundreds of thousands of parcels daily from either a single distribution center or by deploying ship-from-store, BOPIC, BOPIS, and other innovative fulfillment strategies.

4. Reverse logistics are taking center stage.

With e-commerce on the rise, retailers have been forced to focus on reverse logistics strategies. According to Dotcom Distribution’s 2020 e-commerce consumer survey, 76 percent of shoppers reported returning up to a quarter of their online purchases, and 56 percent said a company’s lack of a free returns policy prevented them from making a purchase.

Some companies avoid returns altogether, including many luxury brands, who choose to skip the expense and improve customer service in one motion. E-tailers (sellers with no brick-and-mortar stores) are now increasingly following suit, sometimes telling customers to keep incorrect products and avoid the cost of returns.

For those companies committed to handling returns, however, the best way to mitigate returns costs is by implementing a multi-carrier strategy. Equipping fulfilment teams with multiple carrier services from which to choose and technology that facilitates rate shopping across carrier services will keep costs low and empower teams to work around any carrier service delays or disruptions.

Furthermore, and as stated earlier, the priority is on convenience.  Therefore, all efforts need to be made to ensure returns strategies breed customer loyalty. Forward-thinking organizations who put the customer experience first simplify returns, using dual-use labels (labels that serve the purpose of both the outbound shipment and return) or peel-off labels (where the outbound label easily peels off to expose a return label) and accepting returns of online orders in stores.

5. Carrier services are being redefined.

During the pandemic, Instacart, Postmates, Roadie, Shipt and others became household names, in many cases integrating into retailers’ transportation networks to complement traditional carrier services.

For those watching, it was easy to spot the trend and see that these gig-based delivery services were steadily racking up retail partnerships over the last several years. Many initially scaled through food, grocery, or restaurant, and in 2020, this growth was further hastened by increases in both non-perishable retailer demand and consumer adoption rates.

As companies increasingly ship orders from stores rather than from central distribution centers, we will continue to see growth in services that deliver parcels from stores to local customers – and their increasing inclusion in retail transportation networks. Expanding the carrier network and choosing to work with specialty delivery services empowers retailers to provide a consistent level of service to customers, even when carrier capacity is surging.

Furthermore, employing a multi-carrier shipping system with the ability to integrate with these delivery services will empower retailers by offering both a breadth and depth of choice so they can compare rates, delivery times, etc. between carriers and delivery services. The software provides flexibility when seeking the best way to fulfill any given order, which can be especially helpful when facing capacity limitations.

Supply Chain Disruption Breeds Supply Chain Resilience

2020 reinforced for everyone that when one industry is impacted (like retail), so are countless others (like carriers, 3PLs, and so on) and there are widespread impacts operationally and financially. Savvy supply chain leaders will use their takeaways from 2020 to create more flexible and resilient operations to weather whatever the future has in store.

To learn more about the impact 2020 will have on 2021, watch our webinar: Parcel Shipping Predictions for 2021 and Beyond.