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December 2, 2020updated 01 Dec 2020 3:56pm

How technology is preparing high street retailers for the pandemic-struck Christmas season

By Rob Shaw

The two-month festive season accounts for approximately 30% of the high street’s annual revenue, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), with 64% of UK shoppers preferring to shop in store in 2019. But this year, in the context of a socially distanced, pandemic-struck Christmas, this is set to change, with consumers shopping online in ever greater numbers.

Versatility is key for high street retailers

Despite these unprecedented, existential challenges, there are a variety of steps high street retailers can take to meet the opportunities offered by heightened online demand, and to mitigate the expected lower footfall. In particular, by focusing on more versatile store-centric fulfilment strategies, they can find new ways of making their inventory work harder. There are some complex issues to address, not least the challenges faced by store staff, who may be asked to learn new systems and new processes. They may be required to turn from customer-facing sales staff into efficient order pick and packers, which is very different and will require training and alterations to the store layout.

Effective fulfilment

However, if done well, store fulfilment can be of huge benefit to high street retail. Using store stock to fill online orders, for instance, whether they are fulfilled via delivery or Click & Collect, offers enormous potential to mitigate the shift in shopping habits caused by Covid-19. On a headline level, adding these capabilities not only enables stores to move more inventory, but a ‘well-oiled’ system means that customers get their order faster.

In addition, sales that may have been lost due to items being out of stock can be minimised because customers have access to all inventory across a retailer’s ecosystem for ecommerce order fulfilment. It’s a win-win: shoppers get what they need from retailers who have their items in stock and ready to go. And when lockdown rules allow, Click & Collect can deliver a boost for in-store sales teams, who are also on-hand to up-sell.

Utilise technology

But, implementing effective technology infrastructure is key. Today’s dedicated Distributed Order Management (DOM) systems offer user-friendly, mobile-enabled tools that guide store staff through the pick, pack, and ship process. Not only does this reduce the time it takes to train staff, but from the first order notification, through to printing shipping labels, it provides them with a good experience. More importantly still is that those same tools let staff provide a great order management process to the customers.

Similarly, when online customers arrive to collect an order, in-store staff need only scan a barcode. This ensures waiting times are short, not only adding to customer satisfaction but also helping stores to fulfil their social distancing obligations to staff and customers alike. More efficient inventory management also means the DOM will allow retailers to adjust the flow of orders sent to each store, so no location is over-burdened and stock levels remain efficiently balanced around shops in a chain. If an order is unable to be fulfilled at any given store, it is automatically rerouted.

Remain agile

This includes allowing retailers to temporarily change how much stock is sent to locations that might be impacted by the virus and the measures put in place to slow its spread. For example, a location may have reduced capacity because of too many absent staff, but the retailer can quickly adapt and can do so without needing to make permanent changes to their fulfilment strategy. There are also ways to remain agile by extending existing fulfilment networks, including the addition of new Drop Ship Vendors (DSVs) who can handle fulfilment without relying on a retailer’s warehouse or distribution centre or the store network.

Ultimately, these initiatives help deliver on the compelling factors that have contributed to the success of digital shopping, in that they deliver a quick, easy, reliable and convenient value retail experience. If the waves of Covid lockdowns and restrictions have taught us anything, it is that retailers need the ability to react quickly. Success is measured in days rather than weeks or months, and in some cases, retailers have launched new fulfilment capabilities in less than a week. Until the industry re-enters a period of stability, shifting the focus of sales and fulfilment to meet customer needs must remain front-of-mind for retailers with a high street presence.

Read More: UK’s first WhatsApp High Street created in bid to bring SMEs online.