The extraordinary growth of multi-channel retailing and record-breaking volumes has meant that planning for the peak season is essentially a year-long exercise, says Neil Weightman, Commercial Director at iForce, the fastest-growing supply chain business in the UK.
"Planning for our peak season starts in earnest in February of each year when our operational solutions team gather the statistics to analyse the performance during the previous peak period. This evaluation covers the overall operation, as well as metrics at a granular level, so that we can review every aspect of the operational solution and carrier network and discuss this in depth with the onsite management team and with the client.
"Starting the review in February allows us to not only analyse our performance over Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas, but also throughout January, which now includes significant sale/clearance activity and is also the peak returns-processing period. Over recent years the peak season has stretched well in to the New Year, as retailers launch their sales from Christmas Eve onwards – leading to Boxing Day order volumes being some of the largest of the whole year.
"We then combine the analysis that we have collected with each client’s projections for the following year, to assess whether the infrastructure within our individual sites and our overall proposition needs to be restructured, amended or further strengthened. By doing this at the beginning of the year, it provides sufficient time to reconfigure the warehouses during the summer months if necessary and conduct testing well before peak stock starts arriving. Changes will be needed to accommodate ever increasing order volume growth and/or adjusted to facilitate the handling of new products into the network, as our clients seek to widen their product offering to increase revenues."
Scaling the workforce for peak
"Recruiting and training the right people to support our core workforce at peak is a key element of our service excellence and why our market-leading clients select us as their chosen fulfilment partner. By working closely with our individual clients we can assess the requirement for temporary labour and brief our agency partners as early as Spring-time, to ensure that we secure the best candidates. We work with a number of retained agency partners, which we guarantee a number of hours for the peak season across our 9 UK sites - this ensures that we get the right quantity and quality of people.
"To ensure maximum productivity and high standards we put all our temporary workers through our dedicated Training Academy, which lasts for three days and includes tuition on how to use our portfolio of industry leading software that underpins our services and solutions. Last year, we expanded our workforce by circa’ 1,850 temporary warehouse colleagues to reinforce operations ahead of increased activity during Black Friday and in the lead up to Christmas itself, and this year we expect that number to be well over 2,000 agency colleagues."
Testing the network
"By late-Summer we have the necessary infrastructure in place to comfortably deal with the peak season and we then carry out a series of end-to-end stress tests on our IT network. In partnership with our clients, we hold orders back to accumulate higher volumes to simulate the volumes we expect to see on the peak hour on the peak day, which allows us to thoroughly test the network both throughout the day and into the evening. This ensures that we can highlight any further areas of improvement ahead of the significant volumes that will be triggered by Black Friday."
Real time activity
"Once we move into the peak season the real key to success is communication. Working together with our clients we will assess the budgets that have been set and monitor the activity from both the client side and throughout our network. This also provides the client with the opportunity to share any additional promotional activity that may occur, for instance if a retailer decides to further reduce a specific range of products to drive sales, which is more often or not driven by competitor activity or price matching.
In addition, as we operate multiple warehouse operations, we can efficiently allocate our temporary workforce to deal with the fluctuations across the estate, which provides added flexibility if a particular retailer is experiencing volumes well in excess of their forecast."
"Global ecommerce consultancy Salmon now predicts that consumers will spend a record-breaking £5 billion online between Thursday 24th November through to Cyber Monday on the 28th. In iForce’s experience, early planning is absolutely key to delivering service excellence. My advice is to work more closely than ever with your clients, ensure hourly communication and collaboration on forecasting and resourcing, and guarantee that your network has been rigorously tested in advance. This will provide the key to remaining in control and hitting your service targets during what is likely to be the industry’s most intensive period in history."