There is hardly anyone in the urban scenario in India that has not placed orders on online portals, such as Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal and numerous others sites to buy products ranging from grocery to minor and major household items to electronic and electrical products to apparels and what not.
E-commerce (short for electronic commerce) has indeed revolutionized the world and is on the rise, not only the world over but also across our country. According to Forrester Research, e-commerce sales in the US will reach $370 billion, an increase of 10% from 8%, of all the country’s retail sales by 2017.
India will not remain far behind, what with the advent of the Digital India initiative.
Today, over 50% consumers who shop online use mobile devices for research, price comparisons, and purchasing. The online retail customers can sit cozily in the comfort of their homes and just click ‘order now’ button on the device to get what they have chosen online, with discounts, exchange options, free delivery, bonus points and other lucrative incentives thrown in.
And the best part is the delivery that brings your product to your doorstep within a very reasonable timeframe, even giving you a choice of quicker delivery. Not only this, the online retailers take pains to return sold products from dissatisfied consumers and refund their money or exchange the item. Little wonder these e-commerce sites are slowly becoming the most preferred options for people from all walks of life.
Online Retailers on the Upswing
This simple ordering procedure on the internet and prompt delivery right to your home is the result of a well-oiled logistics machinery. Such is the efficiency that you take it for granted and rate these online retail outlets by the service rendered. You don’t even take the trouble of pondering what behind the scenes hard work goes towards making this possible.
In such a scenario and amongst such cutthroat competition, it is imperative that online retailers get the best logistics people in place. This calls for finding reliable and steadfast logistics partners, who have a proven record of smooth and efficient delivery of products to their customers. This not only smoothens the process of product delivery and returns, if required but also helps in garnering satisfied repeat customers.
The rush for online retailing has had a very positive outcome, and that is the unprecedented growth of e-commerce. With consumers purchasing almost everything online from groceries to furnishings to electronics to furniture to antiques, this trend is likely to boom in the coming years. Thanks to the increasing access to internet and broadband, smartphones and other devices, as also the government’s backing to online business ventures, the future of online retail marketing and logistics industry is certainly on the upswing.
The online entrepreneurs are upbeat about what lies ahead, primarily due to the cessation of red-tapism that has eased the norms for business ventures, as also SEBI’s initiative to lift listing norms, raise capital and provide a dedicated platform for startups to get listed on stock exchanges in India. Such is the e-retail success that even the traditional brick-and-mortar stores have diversified into it by opening separate e-commerce divisions, lest they get left behind in this booming industry.
The Increasingly Crucial Role of Logistics
Online retailing and logistics are the two cogwheels of online entrepreneurship. Without an efficient logistics backup, even the best of online retail stores stand to lose customers. Thus, logistics is a key player in the success of any e-commerce venture. The good news is that logistics in India is steadily evolving. The days when the retailers used to directly source goods from suppliers and manufacturers is slowly disappearing. Today, this role has been taken up by e-commerce fulfillment centers that have taken over the job of distributing products.
The multifaceted logistics industry in India performs multiple roles, such as warehousing, inventory management, billing, packaging, labeling, shipping, timely delivery, online payment or cash on delivery, product return and exchange, and many others. To streamline such complex tasks, the logistics firms make use of specialist enterprise mobility software that enables them to track, manage stock levels, package and deliver. Also, the logistics firms need to be conversant with the government’s business and transport regulations to supply the goods.
The logistics firms also need to be conversant with reverse logistics, that is, when customers request for returning the product when it is damaged, has wrong specifications, or they are simply dissatisfied with it. This compels the online retailers to put a return and exchange policy into place to retain customers. This also puts an added pressure on the logistics firm to, first of all, minimize the damage to the product by using good packing material and ‘handle with care’ tags for fragile items, as also to ensure hassle-free return or exchange of the product.
With such diverse logistics services, the online retailers need to choose reputed courier companies or specialist third party logistics providers. Bigger players who have the money and resources also create their logistics companies for speedy and accurate delivery. In the long run, this not only saves time but money too.
The Logistics Nightmare
The key component of any logistics service provider is its warehouse operations that may constitute up to 25% of the entire supply chain costs for a company. It becomes imperative to ensure the efficiency and accuracy of this part of the operation not only for smooth functioning but also for getting an edge over competitors.
The warehouse operations involve receiving the goods, quality check, segregating and storing the goods at the right place, managing orders, packing and then dispatching to the correct addresses. This entails handling large volumes of diverse items to widely spread delivery locations. The size of the consignments, specific protocols, such as ‘First in First Out,’ ‘First Manufactured First Out,’ ‘First Expiry First Out,’ etc. has a direct bearing on this and add to the operational cost and possibility of errors and slip-ups.
Automation is the Answer
Imagine handling 70,000 products that are required to be picked up based on several protocols and sent out in a day to 500 different regions! This would certainly be a tall order for human workers. The mere size of the consignment in human hands may lead to delays, thereby keeping the customers waiting. To get around this problem, automating seems a lucrative solution for most big e-retailers.
The one solution that is being earnestly considered is robotics to handle this part of the warehouse operations. The saving of time by robotics will certainly give any retailer a vast competitive edge in the global market.
What is Robotics?
Is it any wonder that some of the words that have become the present-day technical jargon had their origin in science fiction stories! One such word is ‘robotics,’ derived from the word ‘robot,’ that was first used by the renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his short story titled ‘Liar,’ published in 1941 in ‘Astounding Science Fiction.’ It was only in 1961 that the first digitally operated and programmable robot, called the Unimate, was used for lifting hot metal pieces from a die casting machine and stack them. Today, robotics has become the interdisciplinary branch of engineering and science that deals with the design, construction, operation and use of robots.
The robotics technology seems to be entering the industries and households slowly, but surely, in well-considered stages. And a few robots designed for specific purposes are already among us. The industrial robots have been used extensively to perform jobs tirelessly with more accuracy and reliability, than their human counterparts.
Personal robots are helping us in our household chores and in maintaining our gardens. Commercial robots are busy on the manufacturing side of the supply chain, mostly in the automotive sector. There are certain fields where robots are indispensable, such as jobs that are too dangerous or dirty or not suitable for humans.
Some of the current and potential applications of robots include military robots, cleaner robots for cleaning nuclear contamination and toxic wastes, agricultural robots, domestic robots for elderly care, remote controlled crane robots, hospital couriers and staff robots to include receptionists and helper, medical robots for assisting in surgery, and much more. Such is the prevalence of robotics that the IBM keyboard manufacturing factory in Texas is 100% automated using robots. In the ultimate analysis, the option to use robots is not only time saving but proves most economical too.
If robots can be used in manufacturing, assembly lines, packing and packaging, transport, earth and space explorations, surgery, weaponry, laboratory research, safety and mass production of consumer and industrial goods, what stops robotics from entering the turf of online retail logistics in a big way? Why are there so few advanced robots working in warehouses catering to online retailers and helping them to meet modern distribution challenges?
Robotics in Indian Logistics Industry
Although robotics technology up till now has not made a large impact in the world of logistics, this trend is about to change as advanced robots have started entering the warehouses and sorting centers to not only help in augmenting warehouse operations but also to assist with the final-mile delivery.
The main objective of bringing robotics into warehouse operations for sorting out the logistics of online retailers is to deliver a quick, efficient and error-free handling of wares, whether it is dispatch, return or exchange in any part of the country. This arrangement works for logistics workers as well, who will benefit from collaborating with robots. Just imagine the world where people can focus on work that is meaningful and more enjoyable, rather than repetitive, tedious or dangerous manual labor that is best done by robots.
Thus, automating most warehouse operations proves a viable substitute for humans, who then can be employed in other human-centric areas, like customer support, etc.
Robotic Solutions to Online Retail Logistics
Reading barcodes on packets moving over a belt, measuring the weight, volume, and dimensions of each package and sorting these according to dispatch destinations is a dull and dreary job that a human can easily get bored with, leading to errors and slip-ups, not to mention the time wasted. Or take the example of a picker, who spends about 60% of his work-time walking into different sections of the warehouse to pick or put items on the tracks, in the correct order.
The same job can be most efficiently performed by a robotic sortation system that eliminates any errors in the situation, speeds up the process, and reduces the delivery cycle. If a robotic solution that brings the pick and put racks on the operators will prove a very good time saver while minimizing the incidence of damage, pilferage or stock misplacement.
The nature of the logistics operations job has witnessed a paucity of labor availability. The biggest challenge that the companies face is to find enough high-quality employees to move goods from suppliers to customers. According to Forrester Research, there is predictably a 10% year-on-year growth for online retail in Europe and the US. However, according to the same research, the online growth in Asia is even faster. For example, the online retail market in China is projected to become equal to that of France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US put together by the year 2020.
Today, we are witnessing the growth of Indian online retail industry. This has already put the supply chain under pressure to deliver more with less. Introducing robotics is a positive step towards increasing speed and reducing errors, leading to a change in the way online retailers have been doing business.
There is little doubt that with the burgeoning online retail shopping, the retailers are turning more and more towards finding solutions to ease the flow of products to customers, not only to win them over, but also to make them repeat customers. In this regard, robotics appears to prove to be the perfect panacea for the Indian logistics industry in support of online retailers.