As e-commerce continues to grow, many UK retailers are realising the true potential of automated handling systems in the fulfilment of omnichannel orders.


With e-commerce being the fastest growing retail market in Europe, Napoleon’s description of Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ becomes a little less true each year. According to the Centre for Retail Research, online retailing in Europe grew by over 20% in 2013 and the online share of retailing in the UK is expected to rise from 12.1% last year to 13.5% this year.

E-tail challenges

When it comes to logistics, e-commerce presents a number of challenges. Firstly, the order profile for online sales is quite different, with a much greater requirement for single item picking compared with the more efficient batch picking needed to replenish shops. Secondly, with no immediate possibility to select alternative stock if the consumer is not satisfied, customer service expectations for e-commerce are extremely high, making picking accuracy absolutely critical. Then there is the short picking window that results from the combination of a next-day delivery service and late order cut-off times; this requires a solution that can deal cost-effectively with peak throughputs. Finally, the limitations of selecting goods via a computer or mobile device mean that e-tail features a high level of returns, especially when it comes to fashion goods.

Automated response

Automated handling systems are proving highly capable of meeting the logistics needs of e-tail. The latest technology allows cost-effective picking of smaller unit loads – cases, totes or single items – and can facilitate the picking, sequencing and dispatch of orders in various load types within multichannel distribution centres. Computer control of the picking process allows automated solutions to secure the economies of batch picking for single item picking; for example, a pick-by-light solution can enable the picking of several items from a tote and the allocation of them to several target totes, each representing a home delivery.

When it comes to returns, an automated system ensures that returned goods are immediately available for current orders. In addition, automation negates the need for returns to be reintegrated into the main stock, as the WMS knows exactly where they are located. Of course, automation – such as pick-by-voice or pick-by-light technology – improves picking accuracy and thereby minimises the number of returns in the first place.

Through highly efficient storage and picking – such as goods-to-person solutions – automation allows e-tailers to cope with short picking windows.

Many e-tailers are even integrating value-added services – such as gift wrapping – in their automated systems remarkably easily and effectively.

Discover more

Automation for e-commerce will be the subject of this year’s AMHSA Symposium, to be held on 9 October at Hinckley Island Hotel in Leicestershire. As well as hearing the views of a number of high-profile speakers, delegates will have the opportunity to network with one another and discuss queries or possible projects with AMHSA members. The day will conclude with a gala dinner, hosted by AMHSA. Bookings will be open via the AMHSA website soon.

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