How Successful Retailers and Distribution Centers Are Keeping Pace With Consumer Demands
The pandemic’s impact on consumer shopping habits, specifically the exponential growth in e-commerce, pushed retailers and distribution centers (DCs) to previously unimaginable limits. DC and retail operations were tasked with developing and implementing safety protocols while keeping up with elevated order volumes and increased consumer demand for fast deliveries. At the end of the day, retailers and DCs that invested in technology and automation to optimize workflows were better positioned to not only weather the pandemic, but also set the pace for the rapidly evolving e-commerce industry.
Today’s inventories have grown larger and more diverse. The ability to provide consumers with what they want, when they want it is no longer a value add, but considered table stakes. Many sellers have found the solution to keeping up with consumer demand while obtaining an advantage against their competition is investing in robotics and automation technology.
No longer can retailers survive solely with a manually operated DC strategy, as workers have become overwhelmed by the volume of online orders during the pandemic. Robotic and automation solutions allow retailers and DCs to keep pace with growing e-commerce demands by providing the ability to scale quicker, respond to abrupt market changes with flexibility, and optimize the use of scarce human labor for the highest level of productivity. Warehouses and retailers that have integrated robotic and automated solutions into day-to-day operations have managed to thrive, while those still operating manually are falling behind and even closing, proving the importance of technology’s presence in the retail industry.
Let’s look at three of the most valuable robotic and automated solutions that can be utilized by retailers and DCs:
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs): In manual operations, it's common to have a lack of efficiency in transport workflows. AMRs move and sort product within the warehouse, supporting the order selection process, increasing visibility of inventory, and deploying workers to where they're needed most throughout the DC and store to maximize productivity and efficiency. AMRs in retail stores — primarily seen in grocery — move through aisles alerting employees that a product is out of stock or if there are issues, including products placed in the incorrect location. AMRs also benefit retail stores with the ability to capture data related to customer buying patterns.
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS): A flexible and highly scalable solution that can retrieve and transfer product in storage. AS/RS solutions save floor space and allow for a significant increase in inventory storage density in a warehouse. AS/RS implementations are transformative to warehouse and DC optimization in both capacity and operation workflows.
- Robotic Loaders and Unloaders: Robotic loaders and unloaders eliminate the need for manual, repetitive human labor on a loading dock. Loaders and unloaders take away one of the most strenuous and dangerous jobs in the warehouse that also has a notoriously high turnover rate.
In recent years, automated technologies and robots have become increasingly affordable, making them a viable option for DCs looking to keep pace with the e-commerce boom. Given the trajectory of the retail industry towards omnichannel shopping, DCs investing in robotic and automated solutions will be better positioned to meet and exceed the ever-changing needs of consumers while also future-proofing operations for the next growth period.
While the workforce continues to rapidly evolve, robotic and automated solutions won’t replace humans that are essential to distribution and retail processes. Instead, these solutions simply support more efficient operations by handling the tasks workers find repetitive, exhausting or burdensome.
Dr. Thomas H. Evans is robotics chief technology officer for safety and productivity solutions at Honeywell, a technology company that delivers industry-specific solutions.