The retail landscape is fundamentally shifting as customers embrace Omni-channel shopping and expect seamless, integrated experiences across physical and digital channels. This evolution forces retailers to transform their traditionally siloed distribution networks into nimble supply chains capable of supporting true Omni-channel fulfilment. Companies that fail to adapt risk losing market share to brick-and-mortar competitors, e-commerce giants, and startups with creative fulfilment models.
What is Omni-Channel Fulfillment?
Omni-channel fulfilment refers to a retailer’s ability to fulfil orders flexibly across all sales channels and locations. Customers expect to be able to buy online and pick up in-store, return an online purchase at a physical store, or ship an out-of-stock store item from the e-commerce warehouse. Retailers also push inventory available across the enterprise to fulfil orders as efficiently as possible.
This represents a notable shift from the past, where distribution channels tended to operate independently. Online orders were fulfilled from a separate e-commerce warehouse, while physical stores only moved products internally. Modern consumers expect seamless coordination rather than channel silos.
Driving Forces Behind the Rise of Omni-Channel
Several interrelated factors are driving the rise of Omni-channel fulfilment models:
- Online sales represent an increasingly large portion of revenue for retailers. Global e-commerce sales will likely exceed $5 trillion by 2021. Supporting rising online volumes requires distribution networks that straddle physical and digital channels.
- Customers now take seamless Omni-channel experiences for granted. Younger demographics, in particular, demand flexibility in payments, delivery, returns, and fulfilment.
- Startups with nimble supply chains optimized for omni-channel (like Warby Parker and Everlane) have gained market share and mindshare. Traditional retailers must adapt to keep pace.
Advances in logistics:
- New fulfilment models enabled by sophisticated software, robotics, shifting urban infrastructure, and transportation options make flexible omnichannel distribution achievable.
Access to data:
- Detailed transaction data and inventory visibility across the enterprise allow retailers to optimize fulfilment decisions and substitute products when needed.
These drivers make transitioning to true omni-channel fulfillment a strategic imperative. Companies that can meet customer expectations and adapt to this new environment will gain loyalty and competitive advantage. Laggards that cling to legacy distribution models face extinction.
Impacts on Distribution Footprints and Logistics
Delivering on the omnichannel flexibility mandate requires most retailers to change their distribution networks dramatically and re-engineer fulfilment processes. Common implications include:
- Smaller, more numerous warehouses to enable faster delivery and in-store fulfilment. Mini-warehouses in urban locations facilitate delivery density.
- Stores start shipping orders directly to customers, effectively operating as mini-fulfilment centres. Ship-from-store provides localization and speed.
- Dark stores become miniature distribution hubs to support buying online and picking up in-store. Large stores may dedicate sections just for order processing.
- Sophisticated inventory management provides enterprise-wide visibility and enables intelligent shipment routing to optimize fulfilment time.
- Expanded usage of parcel lockers and neighbourhood collection points to facilitate fast, flexible customer pickup.
- Tighter last-mile integration via partnerships with delivery services, crowdsourced couriers, autonomous vehicles, and drones.
- Significant investment in logistics processing software and omnichannel management systems (OMS) to enable synchronization.
These changes realign networks from centralized models to distributed webs of facilities tailored for speed, flexibility, and localization. Fulfilment locations situate inventory and capacity as close to customers as possible. Smaller facilities and fragmented inventory reduce order lead times.
Such transformations require major capital investment and organizational change. But first-movers will gain a long-term advantage by responding quickly to evolving customer demands.
Case Studies in Omni-Channel Distribution
Retailers across sectors showcase different models and strategies for tackling the Omni-channel fulfilment challenge:
- Walmart has rapidly scaled smaller e-commerce warehouses while empowering stores to fulfil digital orders. Their ship-from-store program handles the majority of online deliveries, with plans to reach 3,100 participating locations.
- Home Depot utilizes interconnected physical, mobile, and digital assets to provide omni-channel choice. Buyers can purchase online and pick up in-store within an hour or have products delivered same-day from nearby stores.
- Best Buy invested $750 million to overhaul its supply chain around Omni-channel capabilities like ship-from-store and curbside pickup. Their chainwide inventory visibility helps route each order to the optimal location.
- Hudson's Bay redesigned its distribution network and adopted advanced forecasting to support omni-channel initiatives. They gained efficiency through centralized processing for packages regardless of origination.
- Amazon continually sets the benchmark with massive investments in logistics infrastructure and pioneering concepts like mini urban fulfilment centres. Their ecosystem syncs digital and physical assets into a seamless network.
While starting points and maturity levels differ, retailers agree on Omni-channel distribution's growing primacy.
Key Takeaways and Long-Term Outlook
Omni-channel fulfilment has emerged as a non-negotiable capability for retailers to meet rising consumer expectations and compete in a disrupted industry. Early movers who transform their supply chains stand to gain market share at the expense of companies wedded to legacy distribution models.
Looking forward, the push toward smaller, faster, more flexible fulfilment is likely to accelerate with advances in automation, artificial intelligence, delivery drones, and tracking technology. Retailers will continue customizing distribution footprints around dense metro areas to facilitate speedy, low-cost, last-mile delivery. Personalization and localization will become the next horizon.
Supply chain leaders have an opportunity to get ahead of the curve by pilot-testing inventive fulfilment models, building modularity into distribution assets, and collecting data to inform continuous optimization.
While navigating Omni-channel complexity poses an enormous challenge, the underlying retail transformation provides opportunities for companies to gain an advantage by innovating creatively on the distribution front. Those who embrace this potential and align their networks to new commerce realities can turn change into opportunity.
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