By Ryan Duguid, SVP Technology Strategy, Nintex

Peak shopping season is upon us. Between November and January, holiday sales are expected to surpass $1 trillion, while ecommerce sales are projected to land between $111 billion and $114 billion.

For the overall marketplace, these numbers are encouraging, reflecting a growth economy, robust labor market, and high degree of consumer confidence. Customers feel good enough to spend high – and businesses will reap the benefits.

But while retailers are greeting the holiday shopping season with excitement, shippers – particularly small and mid-sized operations – are looking at that same time period with a bit more anxiety. And those nerves will only intensify as two major shopping – and shipping – dates approach: Black Friday (November 24) and Cyber Monday (November 27).

With these massive consumer days on the horizon, many shippers will have to evaluate and evolve their existing supply chain operations to prepare for the onslaught.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the evolving demand on shippers

Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday of last year, the staff at St. George Logistics faced a situation that a senior staff member said is without precedent: Its fulfillment center employees had to come into work on Saturday.

As the senior employee explained to a reporter, the need for employees to work overtime on Saturday arose because of the sheer volume of orders that flooded the company between the two commerce holidays. With orders coming in from major retailers like Target and Macy’s, the company had to extend staffing into the weekend to avoid delays or shortages.

For shippers, Black Friday-related situations like this are not unique, and they’re becoming increasingly common. That’s because for the few days that constitute this retail frenzy, shippers can expect to be functioning at a scale that can quickly become unsustainable under traditional supply chain processes.

To a large extent, Cyber Monday is to blame for this increasing demand on shippers. Originally launched as a marketing effort by a National Retail Federation subsidiary in 2005, the event has become a full-fledged holiday that’s fundamentally transformed seasonal expectations of shippers.

Harnessing supply chain automation to keep pace with the holiday rush

Even more than Black Friday, Cyber Monday seems like a retail holiday that was dreamt up to test the efficacy of shipping operations. If there are weak points in a shipper’s supply chain, Cyber Monday is the day that will bring them to the surface.

That’s where supply chain automation comes into play.

As a solution to the problem of unsustainability massive holiday workloads, effective automation solutions enable shipping operations to identify the elements of their supply chain that are most encumbered by time-intensive, needlessly manual functions and automate these functions to boost bottom-line efficiency.

The prime example of an effectively automated supply chain is Amazon. As a company, Amazon’s supply chain is its engine, and the degree of automation it employs is unparalleled. By applying automation to nearly every phase of its supply chain – from ordering to product retrieval to delivery – Amazon has staked new ground in shipping expediency and significantly raised expectations of what shippers can deliver.

But how do smaller shippers get there?

Finding an optimal automated workflow tool

Small to mid-sized shipping operations can’t expect to keep pace with industry giants like Amazon. But by leveraging supply chain automation solutions, they can take a critical step toward lowering operational costs and bolstering bottom-line efficiency.

However, that ultimate success depends on finding an effective supply chain automation solution. Here are some of the factors shippers should prioritize when looking for an optimal solution:

  • Incremental deployment: Implementing automated workflow tools can be a big shift for shippers, and it’s important for people and processes to keep pace. For this reason, shippers should look to solutions that can be rolled out incrementally and on an as-needed basis. Otherwise, shippers can find themselves bogged down by deployment-related complexity.
  • Integration with existing solutions: Adopting a cloud-based workflow automation tool shouldn’t come at the expense of jettisoning existing processes that are working. In order to facilitate the most seamless adoption possible, shippers should identify solutions providers that easily integrate within the company’s existing infrastructure.
  • Navigable interface: Finally, shippers need to ensure that whatever supply chain automation solution they settle on, it features a user-friendly and highly navigable interface. That’s because in order to effectively deploy automated solutions, shippers can’t rely on IT teams alone to manage them – they also need an empowered line-of-business workforce. And that means settling on a solution that’s built with intuitive functionality in mind.

By strategically leveraging an effective automated workflow tool, small to mid-sized shippers can solidify a competitive edge in a crowded industry while also driving down overall operating costs.

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