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COVID is bringing lasting improvements to the delivery experience—here’s how

Published May 24, 2021

Robots, passenger planes and drones—delivery looks a whole lot different, and better

The pandemic accelerated innovation by leaps and bounds—and the delivery experience has been a big part of what’s changed. Shipment volumes increased a staggering 30 to 40 percent in some regions, while distributors, delivery drivers and everyone in between scrambled to figure out how to keep everything running smoothly.

The challenges were many, but the solutions seemed few. Increased order volumes, shipping delays (or stoppages), staffing struggles and tighter government regulations needed some serious deliberation, planning and pivots to keep up. And consumers haven’t been so understanding about these obstacles. Action needed to happen to stop customer dissatisfaction—and revenue—from plummeting.

COVID improved the delivery experience by forcing businesses to think of creative end-to-end logistical solutions amid never-seen-before restrictions and changing consumer behavior. And these changes will leave a lasting impact on sourcing, shipping and delivery moving forward.

Shipping services use technology to increase efficiency and reduce error

The reaction from the shipping industry was swift as major players realized the pandemic would put a strain on logistics like never before. They recognized that utilizing technology would be the key to future-proofing how shipping and warehousing services do business.

As with many industries undergoing digital transformation, technological innovations are the primary driver in process improvement. What was once considered science fiction is now being leveraged as a practical business solution.

Warehouse robots could be the “key to lockdown fulfillment strategies.

Robotic Fulfillment Solutions

Robotic fulfillment strategies have been gaining steam as a way to counteract staffing shortages and cope with skyrocketing online orders. Despite sometimes being a controversial topic (the potential for robots to replace human beings doesn’t sit well with everyone), warehouse automation keeps the flow of products uninterrupted.

This protects the business’s bottom line and increases the likelihood that customers receive their packages within that coveted “same-day” timeframe. That’s an improvement to the overall delivery experience—and robotic fulfillment strategies are here to stay.

Robotic fulfillment strategies have been gaining steam as a way to counteract staffing shortages and cope with skyrocketing online orders.

Robotic fulfillment has also found a home with major U.S. grocery retailers who have relied on automated micro-fulfillment facilities to meet customers’ seemingly insatiable demand for groceries delivered to their doorsteps. As Katie Arcieri writes for S&P Global, “experts say these facilities provide a scalable model for rapidly fulfilling thousands of grocery orders daily and are far more efficient than human workers who manually pick items in stores.”

Taking it a step further, brands like Amazon and FedEx have been testing drones that will carry packages “the last mile” to customers’ homes. The idea is to have larger, human-operated vehicles carry fleets of drones to neighborhoods which will be dispatched with cargo-laden robots to deliver packages to customers. The use of drones has limited reach currently, but the sky is (literally) the limit in the future.

Augmented reality-equipped warehouse workers

Humans won’t be overtaken by robots anytime soon, though, as brands like DHL are equipping their warehouse staff with augmented reality glasses to improve picking efficiency and limit mistakes. According to DHL, “The technology was used to implement ‘vision picking’ in warehousing operations. Staff was guided through the warehouse by graphics displayed on the smart glass to speed up the picking process and reduce errors.”

Creative logistics bring permanent changes to how products are transported

Conventional methods of transport were ground to a halt in many cases, so logistics companies had to get creative to keep products moving—and some of their solutions are here to stay.

Many experts were making an early prediction of the resurgence of rail transport as a logistical backbone. Most notably, the China-Europe rail line was poised to boom at the very beginning of the pandemic, while regular air, sea and road shipping were out of the question. The week-long Suez canal obstruction further renewed interest in transcontinental rail shipping as a viable option—but a more efficient solution was found in air transport since the very beginning.

Repurposing passenger airlines to meet air cargo demand

While trains are more than likely a temporary solution, companies also looked to the sky for answers to the COVID shipping squeeze. DHL, an innovator in pandemic logistics, began using “charter flights to transport shipments to and from China” in the early days of COVID-19.

American Airlines was among those that repurposed passenger aircraft to transport consumer goods.

Then, recognizing that having passenger aircraft collecting dust wasn’t doing any good, airlines began dedicating routes to carry freight in lieu of passengers—a much-needed source of revenue with travel restrictions in place. Brands like Lufthansa Airlines took it a step further by removing seats to make more room for commercial cargo

And, in a move that will continue to improve the post-pandemic delivery experience, airlines have permanently reallocated parts of their fleets to help meet air cargo demand.

Retail stores transform the delivery experience through localized fulfillment

Without shoppers coming into stores, conventional retailers transformed brick-and-mortar locations into miniature fulfillment centers to expedite delivery in closer proximity. And retailers like Zumiez pioneered the concept years ago but utilizing physical retail space to quickly fulfill local orders really gained traction thanks to restrictions over the past year.

Micro-fulfillment is a trend that will stay post-pandemic

Consumers couldn't go shopping in the traditional sense and they didn't want to wait indefinitely for online availability. So the solution for that was micro-fulfillment: to ship the product directly to the consumer from the retail location nearest them or allow them to “click and collect.” 

As Brody Buhler, former managing director, consulting, post & parcel at Accenture, predicted: “Both of these trends point to retailers accelerating the transformation of brick-and-mortar stores into local fulfillment centres. We estimate that by the end of [2020], 50% of all deliveries will be local.”

Walmart plans to scale its local fulfillment strategy post-pandemic.

This micro-fulfillment solution provides a win-win delivery experience for retailers and customers. Businesses can keep the lights on, so to speak, in brick-and-mortar stores, while customers won’t have to put up with long delivery delays that are out of their or the business’s control.

Related: Reverse logistics in 2021: How to brace for the increasing impact of returns

Contactless delivery the biggest win for restaurants and hungry customers

With social distancing in place due to health concerns during the pandemic there’s been a wider adoption of contactless delivery methods during COVID. And contactless delivery is perfectly suited for distancing protocols. Rather than the delivery driver handing the order to the customer directly, they’ll leave it outside the door, and since the payment and order are both done electronically, it cuts down on any risk of unnecessary exposure.

Food orders fulfilled with zero face-to-face interaction, a common occurrence during COVID.

Although there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest COVID can be transmitted via surfaces—it’s better to be safe than sorry. And with the huge uptick in delivery, restaurant owners and operators need to generally keep food safety in mind (spoiled food can make customers sick, too).

After the new normal takes hold, contactless delivery isn’t going anywhere as it allows food establishments to deliver not only delicious meals but also peace of mind alongside a better delivery experience.

James Pearson, CEO and small business evangelist at eVenturing Enterprises, speaking with PackageX, predicts that contactless delivery is here to stay: “Contactless delivery has set an expectation and standards in customer service of how companies should show extended assistance and care towards their customers. As customers re-evaluate and continue to adjust to meet their needs, there is a high probability of a shift in behavior and higher expectations from the customers.”

Read more about how contactless food delivery is reshaping the restaurant industry.

Shortening the supply chain will improve the delivery experience of the future

COVID-19 highlighted weaknesses in extended and overly complex supply chains, especially when there was such heavy reliance on sourcing from China. Such instability can potentially be avoided by exploring different sourcing options—local, or closer to home, to be specific—to better drive domestic economies and safeguard against future disruptions.

The closer the raw materials are to the end user, the more efficient the value chain and delivery experience will be. Businesses that learn how to shorten the supply chain will have a better chance of reducing negative impacts to their business and their customers in the future. Stay tuned!

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