Every minute during the busiest hour of Cyber Monday, Americans bought $15.7 million worth of stuff online. Sporting goods, toys, furniture, appliances – both big- and small-ticket items – were snatched up on retailer websites and in online marketplaces at an amazing clip, according to Adobe Analytics.
When it was all over, consumers had spent $12.4 billion during the days between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday. That’s nearly a 10-percent increase in buying from last year, Adobe Analytics pointed out. And that’s just the start of the 2023 holiday retail season.
To get ready for the holiday season, UPS Supply Chain Solutions begins ramping up shipments at the end of June for its customer, Stride, whose mission is to help learners of all ages reach their full potential through inspired teaching and personalized learning. To do this, Stride enables online and blended education programs across the globe. Through September, the 3PL used Geekplus Shelf-to-Person mobile robots to increase max daily shipments by 20 percent and shipped volume by 7.3 percent, compared to the peak season from a year earlier. This growth happened while reducing errors and decreasing physical strain on the company’s seasonal workforce.
How did all the retailers and 3PLs operating distribution centers all over the country survive such a significant increase in order fulfillment? For many, fast and error-free picking meant giving their workers a helping hand: autonomous mobile robots.
Instead of replacing workers, these intralogistics smart robots empowered employees to work smarter and faster. Shelf-to-Person and Goods-to-Person autonomous robots increase operational efficiency while improving working conditions for employees by reducing strenuous tasks. In an era of thin margins and supply chain disruptions, warehouse automation is a competitive advantage. Add labor scarcity to the equation, and it’s clear that a winning order fulfillment strategy means utilizing automated storage and retrieval systems to create exceptional working conditions for temporary and full-time workers.
The market for autonomous mobile robots continues to grow, propelled by e-commerce activity and other underlying drivers like labor scarcity, according Interact Analysis. The research firm estimates that 2.7 million robots will be brought online between 2023 and 2027, with order fulfillment robots accounting for the majority of installations. By 2027, 12 percent of general merchandise fulfillment centers will utilize autonomous mobile robots; during that time, Shelf-to-Person and Goods-to-Person robots are expected to see a huge increase in popularity.
Robotics solutions enable 3PLs to optimize picking on behalf of their retail clients, increasing operational efficiency while minimizing mistakes, which elevates consumer happiness. While retailers spend months planning for the biggest U.S. retail days of the year, 3PLs also know there is an element of randomness to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. By automating order fulfillment with Shelf-to-Person solutions and additional mobile robot solutions, retailers are working to increase supply chain responsiveness and create flexibility for when those unknowns crop up. Acting quickly, efficiently and without error is the name of the game.
After the buying happens, then come the returns. Reverse logistics is a growing industry simply because online shoppers keep returning purchased goods. Last year, consumers returned $816 billion in goods, according to the NRF, and the trendline keeps moving up. That makes sense when between 25-50 percent of all online orders are returned.
The complex dance of reverse logistics involves physically collecting the goods and bringing them back to the warehouse; this step of the process creates a lot of unpredictable warehouse traffic. When the goods arrive at the facility, they undergo sorting and quality control. Finally, the returned item is either put back into inventory, sold on the secondary market or repurposed – broken down into component parts to be used for a new product. Relying on sorting automation and mobile robot solutions streamlines this process and removes as many variables as possible from a highly complex process.
Mobile robots assist with returns as well, freeing up workers to concentrate on fulfilling new orders. 3PLs and retailers can manage returns even in the off-picking hours, setting up the system to restock when most workers have clocked out for the day. Speed and accuracy are of the essence in reverse logistics, where companies want to process returns as quickly as possible to get the goods back out into the world.
With all this fulfillment activity being divided among mobile robots and warehouse employees, safety is crucial. Picks-per-hour metrics shouldn’t outweigh worker safety. That’s why the best mobile robot solutions are equipped with built-in safety measures that allow employees to safely maximize productivity by turning over onerous and strenuous picking tasks to autonomous mobile robots. Instead of a nice-to-have feature in the order fulfillment space, warehouse robots are becoming a crucial part of a comprehensive picking strategy.