This is a contributed op-ed written by, Jan Arendtsz, CEO of Celigo
Santa's workshop isn't located at the North Pole — it's the online boutique, the cozy shop around the corner, the big-box retailer and the e-commerce giant. Holiday prep is more challenging thanks to an expanding array of sales channels and changing customer expectations.
If you're doing it right, it's seamless for customers, but retailers and supply chain leaders know a lot of effort goes into making it all look easy.
Last year, seasonal online sales rose by more than 17% to reach $122 billion. Holiday shopping is expected to increase by 18% this year, and Deloitte projects e-commerce spending may reach $149 billion. For supply chain professionals, that means it's time to make sure your systems and processes can handle the holiday rush.
Data integration can ensure the smooth flow of information across a complicated network of applications. It's the key to managing inventory, ensuring prompt fulfillment and satisfying customers. So, with that in mind, ask yourself this: Is your company ready to handle the spike in demand?
5 questions about order fulfillment
Customers expect near-instant gratification when ordering online. If your retail operation's order fulfillment processes require manual intervention to integrate data flowing in from various sources and out to partners and suppliers, that will slow everything down and lead to unsatisfied customers.
Here are five questions that can help you assess your current status:
Do your fulfillment systems (ERP, 3PL, etc.) show orders in real time?
Can your current processes push orders into your fulfillment systems swiftly and accurately — even if sales volumes increased ten-fold?
Do customer support personnel or other team members have to manually intervene to process orders?
Is manual data entry necessary to complete order and fulfillment information in any system at any time?
Can your data integration technology scale up to meet high volumes of information?
These are important questions because it's critical to ensure that as soon as an order is placed, it is available in your fulfillment systems. If you're taking a few minutes here and there to move data around via manual processes, it may not seem like a heavy burden during the normal course of business, but it can be overwhelming when volumes rise higher.
Similarly, it's critical to have data integration capabilities to accommodate trading partner data requirements, such as the ability to send and receive EDI documents and transmit orders immediately after shoppers check out. Many operations handle these requirements manually, which may work well enough all year, but during the holiday rush, process breakdowns can cause delays.
Manual or batch processes to sync inventory and sales channels are another potential pitfall, resulting in inconsistent product availability data that slows down sales just when you need them to peak. The same is true when manual processes touch pricing and product information; mismatches and errors can suppress sales and lead to dissatisfied customers.
Customers expect shipping information when they check out, especially during the holidays, when they may already be worried about gifts arriving on time. So, now is a good time to perform load tests — before the holiday rush truly gets underway — to make sure all of your systems are working in sync and that manual processes won't slow you down at the busiest time of the year.
Putting the "chain" in supply chain: 3 integration options to optimize data flow
To meet customer expectations, companies need to fulfill orders quickly and accurately. Inventory and shipping data must be current across all channels. Recognizing that they must get these processes right to satisfy customers, businesses are using a variety of data integration strategies to ensure the free flow of information across applications. Here's an overview of the three most popular options companies use today:
Custom integrations: Companies use internal IT teams or consultants to build custom integrations from the ground up, connecting applications as needed to ensure data flow and control information. The downside of this approach is that it's expensive, and making changes as new data sources come online is time consuming.
Point-to-point (P2P) connectors: These pre-built integrations between systems are affordable, but reliability varies. P2P connectors are typically domain-specific, so flexibility is limited. It can also be a challenge to keep pace by adding new connectors as needed to accommodate new data streams, which reduces scalability.
iPaaS: Integration platform-as-a-service (iPaaS) can integrate all types of data, including cloud applications, EDI documents, on-premise servers and more. iPaaS solutions standardize how applications are added to simplify movement of static or transactional data across applications while providing critical integration functionality out of the box.
It's important to understand the advantages and limitations of each of these options. Also keep in mind that iPaaS solutions vary, so decide whether you need a platform that is geared toward technical users or one that business users can access to create and manage their own integrations as new data streams come online.
Each supply chain operation has unique challenges. Integration isn't an option — it's a must. So, if you have any doubts about your supply chain's readiness to handle the coming onslaught of holiday shoppers, don't wait to address it – make sure you're prepared.
This story was first published in our weekly newsletter, Supply Chain Dive: Operations. Sign up here.