Aligning the Distribution Center with the Demands of the New Digital Consumer

Nearly 30 percent of warehouse managers implemented a warehouse control system to help coordinate equipment, processes and systems

Randy Marble
Randy Marble

“The new digital consumer is placing more demands on retailers than ever before—a seamless purchasing experience across all supply chain channels,” said Peter Zaballos, vice president of marketing at SPS Commerce, sponsor of the recent Retail Insights industry benchmark report. 

So what are retailers doing to meet these new types of consumers and their omnichannel demands?

For one, it prompted 42 percent of warehouse managers to consider or integrate some type of automation for their operations, according to a Peerless Research Group 2014 survey. Nearly 30 percent implemented a warehouse control system (WCS) to help coordinate material-handling equipment, processes and systems.

Here are several benefits to consider:

Less is More

A modular WCS lets companies of any size automate just the most essential segments of their warehouses or distribution centers (DCs), enabling them to provide impeccable service to their customers without overinvesting in a solution that’s more comprehensive than they need. WCS modules integrate seamlessly with the people and processes already in place, allowing companies to compete with the best, even if they aren’t necessarily the biggest.

Improving Multitasking

A WCS enables companies to efficiently process and ship both individual and bulk orders from a single location. One facility can then satisfy both needs, which saves organizations money and space—especially since the software allows for more densely packed inventory. The software evaluates orders and determines the most efficient way to route inventory to the appropriate stations within the facility, based on their sizes and destinations.

The software also reduces the dependency on people to complete the most repetitive and heavy lifting processes in the warehouse/DC by automating the movement of goods, which lessens the impact on operations as the labor force shrinks. It also takes factors such as vacations, sick days, fatigue and human error out of the equation.

Fine-Tuning the Way Things Get Done

No one wants to manage a warehouse/DC in the dark. A WCS gives operators real-time, granular insights into their systems that allow them to fine-tune all of the different processes as they’re running.

Each WCS module provides insight into the performance of its particular area of usage, such as a zone, storage area, pinch points and schedules, and then turns operational data into useful information that can be applied to effect positive change. It’s an iterative practice: Operators get new information; they improve the process; and on and on, the cycle continues, with each round becoming incrementally more streamlined and efficient than the last.

Meeting Customer Expectations

Some companies are in the business to sell and distribute clothing—and some sell furniture. The same type of material solution doesn’t work for everyone, a fact that is becoming all the more pronounced as companies are forced to respond to ever-more varied customer demands.

A WCS lets companies use their materials-handling equipment to move products to the appropriate stations, satisfying both small- and high-volume orders shipping to a multitude of locations with the same finesse. Yet because it’s modular, companies can pick and choose just the elements that make sense for their product mixes. Having a system that is malleable and modular allows companies to maximize their situations without completely re-architecting their existing systems.

No matter how you look at it, material-handling technology is evolving and there’s no going back. Forty-two percent of respondents to the aforementioned survey say they’re concerned about integrating software with their existing systems. But, notably, that’s the lowest level it’s been in recent years. It marks a growing embrace of technology’s ability to help businesses expand strategically.

As a result of that embrace, companies of any size are able to delight their customers by overnighting a single monogrammed backpack to a family who ordered it online or restocking shelves full of the latest spring fashions after a store’s rapid sell-out.

A WCS serves as the lever for the new way of doing business, yielding clarity and control over operations in a way that businesses didn’t even realize they needed until the digital consumer was born.