It’s about putting your people first for peak season 2021…

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Whether it’s freight and potential wage increases, the shortage of HGV drivers or simply the challenges of recruiting and upskilling enough people to staff warehouses and stores, supply chains have never been more topical or talked about than they are right now.

With retailers gearing up for their busiest period of trading and already battling a number of external headwinds (more so than simply the effects of the pandemic), this year’s peak season feels like it will be more stressed, for more brands, than ever before.

Beyond the material challenges being spoken about however, there is also a welcome shift underway in softer messaging about the increasing value of managing employee well-being and engagement through periods of extended (and often excessive) stress like peak season.

This is the reality of the situation many retailers find themselves in. At a time when many have only just managed to weather the storm presented by the pandemic (successfully pivoting to new processes, methods of customer communications and fulfilment strategies to cope with shifting consumer demands). Warehouses now face the reality that many of their workforces have been working at consistently high levels of throughput, meaning that they need to adapt and be flexible to meet consumer demands.

If end of year sales targets are to be met then it’s not just supply chain processes that need to be effective, it’s the people who make the processes work that need to be considered far more too. Whether it’s warehouse employees or front of house store associates, much of the pressure of peak season 2021 (and ultimately the annual success of retailers) rests on the shoulders of these individuals.

Without wanting to continually look back, there are two key learnings we should take from the pandemic: first, the need for scalable and agile technology is the key to navigating fast-paced, changeable industry landscapes. And, secondly, for all the smart technology you might have in place within your supply chain network, it is ultimately, people, that power businesses and commerce.

Employee engagement in warehouse settings has received well-deserved media attention in recent months. The challenges faced during the pandemic have shown the importance of empathy and understanding the worries and anxieties of individual workers. They also highlighted the risks warehouse workers continue to take every day in order to make sure we, the consumer, still get what we want delivered to our door when we want it.

This surge in ecommerce over the last 18 months (and indeed its continued popularity) quickly highlighted the importance of productivity and an engaged, committed and healthy workforce. Having a loyal and engaged workforce is key to business success, but also crucially it’s key to employee well-being too.

Achieving a happier, more engaged workforce requires more than simply reviewing performance data and rewarding high-performers. Increased expectations for fulfilment speed and volume are driving organisations to better understand and engage their workforce to differentiate and excel. A reliable WMS uses gamification theory and behavioural sciences to revolutionise warehouse labour management, with a focus on providing a more individual and rewarding work experience.

The result? A warehouse environment that helps promote employee productivity, satisfaction, well-being and reduces turnover too.

Managing a work-life tech balance is going to be critically important during this peak season too. Advances in consumer technology are bleeding into the business world, meaning enterprises are under increasing pressure to keep pace with the consumer market when it comes to user experience and innovation. Using outdated, archaic technology is a sure-fire way to exasperate your workforce and cause them unnecessary stress.

Warehouse employees and front of house store associates expect to be able to use the technology they are accustomed to in their personal lives, in their working space. This means having instant access to accurate information (such as in-store and online inventory, customer records or even social media purchasing and browsing trends), using technology that can connect them to other team members and having user-friendly operating systems that are intuitive and easy to get to grips with.

To switch from the back-end (warehouses) to front of house (stores) for a moment; ensuring a store Point of Sale (POS) solution is capable of handling orders and sales, managing inventory and customer-facing functionality (including loyalty, promotions or clienteling) will help retail associates both at the sales desks and in-flight on the shop floor stay ahead of trends, regardless of what might happen in future to shape them.

However, it will also arm the in-store associates with the information they need to provide a seamless customer experience for shoppers. And, as anyone who has ever worked in a high-street store over Christmas will know, being able to have accurate, real-time, information on hand to deal with customer requests makes life 100% less stressful!

The pandemic has provided individuals and organisations with an opportunity to rethink priorities and in many cases it has also afforded them the chance to reset what is truly important to them: whether it’s a greater emphasis on sustainability or a new found appreciation of the true value and importance of people to organisations, there have been silver linings to the clouds of the last 18 months.

It is clear that options such as pick and ship from store, Click and Collect and micro-fulfilment are no longer nice to have options, they are critical areas of a brand’s ability to meet peak (and regular) seasonal challenges and people are key to the success of these capabilities.

As retailers continue to focus on remodelling the store, decentralising fulfilment and managing direct-to-consumer requests, having an omnichannel proposition capable of managing an effective decentralised fulfilment network is now critical like never before.

Let us hope that with the use of smarter supply chain and retail technology (tempered in the heat of the pandemic), that peak season 2021 will see more emphasis placed on enabling, empowering and looking after the well-being of those people in warehouses and stores around the globe who continue to keep life and commerce running for us all.

Alex MacPherson, Director of Solution Consultancy and Account Management at Manhattan Associates

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