Optimizing E-Commerce Warehouses

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E-commerce platforms constantly tempt shoppers with their offers – ranging from “same digit” date sales (4 April, 5 May, etc.), to observances such as Mother’s Day prompting shoppers to purchase items at supposedly lowered rates. These sales, collectively known as Mega Sales Days, have been a key-driver behind Southeast Asia’s online-shopping explosion. According to a study by Facebook Inc and Bain & Co, 86 per cent of the roughly 4,000 people surveyed in Southeast Asia said that they bought products online during sales days pegged to identical-number dates such as 5/5 and 6/6. Inadvertently the sheer volume of orders leads to increased pressure on warehousing and deliveries. So, how does a business cope with storage and distribution of products to customers when orders swell? What are the key challenges and solutions which can improve warehouse operations to deal with the influx of orders?

Maximising and optimising space

In countries such as Singapore, where industrial space rental and prices continued to rise for the tenth straight quarter in the first quarter of 2023, expanding the footprint of a warehouse might not be the most ideal solution in dealing with more orders. While floor space is limited, most warehouses have excess vertical space, which can be utilised to the fullest for storage purposes. The addition of taller storage units along with the correct equipment to both pick and store items enables businesses to house more without the cost of expansion. 
It is important to note that how the vertical shelving works is just as important in optimising storage. One solution will be to use standardised bins for storage that helps keep the shelves neat, orderly, and easy to access. By optimising the real estate of the warehouse through well-organised vertical storage, businesses will find that so much more can be stored with less. 

Organisation of workstations

No one likes a disorganised mess – especially when there are customers to appease. Ensuring that workstations within a warehouse are organised is critical in improving operations and their efficiency. Organisation improves productivity, as workers would not have to waste uptime searching for tools, equipment, or inventory through going through a messy workstation. 
In warehousing, the “5S” method helps remind workers to sort, set in order, shine, standardise, and sustain. By following this method, it will ensure that workstations are organised, and that clutter does not build up – reducing errors, improving safety and efficiency with an influx of items. 

No wasted labour

Picking plans should be properly created and routed to ensure the most efficient use of labour. The monitoring of picking patterns should allow businesses to see trends, allowing a streamlined operation to be crafted through proper storage and access. Items that are frequently sold together can be stored near one another, and items that are picked most should be stored in the most accessible of locations. 
By doing this, labour is not wasted as travel time, time wasted on searching, and picking time are all decreased, allowing a more efficient operation. This algorithm of storing and picking will improve the efficiency of the warehouse amid the increased number of orders and sales.  

The human-automation partnership 

Most warehouses have already implemented radio frequency identification (RFID) barcodes that help workers with picking and storing inventory. While this aids with the accuracy of transactions and the reduction of picking errors, adopting automation can be the next step in improved warehouse efficiency. 
For example, automated solutions such as AutoStore leverage on a scalable system of robots on elevated grids to deliver items stored in compactly stacked bins to warehouse workers at their workstations, called ports. This ensures robotic precision in sorting, storing, and retrieval of the sheer amount of goods these online sales put warehouses through. Granting 99.7% warehousing uptime, this saves huge labour effort by eliminating long walks through the warehouse, time spent sorting, and allows workers to do more important tasks that require that human touch. Warehouses can adopt automation in phases as the operations grow as such a system is highly scalable.
This is reflected in the case of global sports equipment retailers Decathlon in their Calgary store, where AutoStore’s automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) enabled them to boast their own robot-operated warehouse in the back storeroom – boosting items storage to 145,000 items compared to 70,000 items in other outlets. The system also removed non-value adding, tedious, and time-consuming tasks from employees, enabling them to focus on customers. In turn, this has led to the store meeting a three-minute order fulfillment time frame for in-store shoppers, boosting efficiency amid increased business.

The takeaway

With the increased number of sales within the region, the logistical chain of delivering purchases to doorsteps have been put to the test, and it is important for businesses to ensure their warehouses are well prepared for the influx of goods. By ensuring a streamlined workflow and instilling good working habits, it improves the efficiency of the warehouse and move it closer to achieving the six basic tenets of warehouse management; accuracy, cost control, efficiency, cleanliness, safety and security.
However, underlying processes in warehouse can be complex and dynamic. If these changes are not enough, investing in technology and automation might be an effective option to address major challenges faced by warehouse managers, such as growing demands. With continued growth of e-commerce sales and digital consumers always expecting increase speed and convenience, it is key that businesses have a good system in place, supported by a scalable and reliable automation solution.

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