Thanks to retailers like Amazon and Walmart, consumers have come to expect their online orders to arrive at their door, often within two days, if not sooner.

Online shoppers’ expectations continue to grow. Thanks to the standards set by e-commerce behemoths such as Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc., consumers have come to expect their online orders will quickly arrive at their door, often within two days, if not sooner. And many online retailers struggle to meet those expectations, particularly during the busy holiday shopping season.

“It’s challenging enough during off-peak times for retailers to ensure quick and accurate delivery of orders,” says Jeff Hedges, president of warehouse automation at OPEX, a provider of robotic picking and sortation technologies. “But it becomes extremely difficult during the busy holiday shopping season when these retailers see orders increase as much as tenfold, while customers’ expectations for speedy delivery stays the same.”

“To meet or exceed customers’ delivery demands, especially during the holidays, retailers need to overcome a number of specific challenges, including increasing demand for laborers and rising shipping costs,” Hedges says.

Jeff Hedges, Opex

Jeff Hedges, president of warehouse automation at OPEX, a provider of robotic picking and sortation technologies

Cost control

Those conditions are forcing retailers to find ways to effectively control costs within the fulfillment process, according to Hedges. “One way is to automate the process with a goods-to-person delivery system,” Hedges says. These systems use technology that picks products and delivers them directly to a warehouse worker standing at a processing station.

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“Goods-to-person delivery systems can increase efficiency by as much as 60% because the worker doesn’t have to travel through the warehouse to pick the item themselves,” Hedges says. “Accuracy rates are also very high because the technology eliminates the ability for the worker to pick the wrong item,” he says. “A goods-to-person delivery system—such as OPEX’s Perfect Pick—can reduce the pick, sort and pack process down from several hours after the order is received to only minutes.”

For example, Canada-based global retailer Hudson’s Bay Corp. recently implemented its second Perfect Pick system in its distribution facility in Pennsylvania. The system is comprised of 20 aisles of Perfect Pick 32-foot high and 205-foot long. In total, these aisles hold roughly 2 million units of inventory. Perfect Pick’s robotic wireless vehicles, called iBOTs, have access to 100% of the inventory in each of those aisles, quickly gliding through the system, retrieving products as orders come in, and delivering them to pickers at Perfect Pick’s workstation. This eliminates many hours workers would normally spend running around the warehouse picking the products manually.

Shipping time

Hudson Bay’s Perfect Pick system can process about 12,000 items an hour, which adds up to approximately 5,500 customer orders. The company says that on average it takes about 15 minutes from the time they receive an order until it is ready to ship.

Implementing OPEX technology has helped the retailer work toward a couple goals, says Ron Gilbert, the company’s senior vice president of logistics and supply chain. “We are looking at not only enhancing efficiency, but also making the work environment easier for our workers by letting them have the right tools,” he recently told a reporter for The Morning Call, a newspaper in Allentown, Penn.

The e-commerce fulfillment challenges that retailers face are only getting worse—and the holiday shopping season will bring even greater demands. “By harnessing automation within the pick, sort and pack process, retailers can control costs and create efficiency,” Hedges says. “And that holiday readiness can make peak shopping times much more profitable.”

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