James Burman (JB): Walker works across different sectors and handles a variety of product types and their individual needs. Can you give an example of how the pandemic impacted two different sectors substantially?
Charlie Walker (CW): With non-essential high street stores having been closed and now only just starting to tentatively re-open, consumers have turned to online purchasing in record numbers during the pandemic. Indeed, according to figures just released by the Office for National Statistics, online sales as a proportion of all retailing hit an all-time high of 30.7% in April.
Clearly the direct channel is set to remain an essential supply line for UK consumers, but as the online market has boomed there has been a considerable slump in trade order fulfilment activity. Quite simply, while people have been unable to get to the shops, retailers have had no need to order replenishment stock.
So, for some of our clients, the collapse of the high street, has meant finding new routes to market for products that had previously been sold through retail outlets and we have worked closely with a number of companies who have set up B2C online sales channels to off-set the impact of the pandemic on their business. Among other things, this has involved taking steps to ensure that our WMS functionality integrates seamlessly with the client’s new website portal and reconfiguring the layout of the warehouse to accommodate less pallet storage and more pick stock held within easy-to-access totes.
Since the lockdown we have also noticed a particularly strong increase in demand for subscription box services of all kinds as consumers confined to home realise the benefits of having their ‘essentials’ delivered direct to their front door on a regular basis. For example, one of our clients – a provider of diet subscription boxes to health conscious customers across the UK – has seen its order volumes increase by 50% during the lockdown, while a relatively recent addition to our client base is enjoying tremendous success by offering ‘quarantine care packages’ to those isolated at home during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Of course, subscription box schemes were booming before the crisis, but whereas they were previously most popular among the under 35s, there is evidence that the pandemic has led to them being adopted in significant numbers by older consumers too.”
JB: The pandemic has created peaks in demand at times of year when they might not have usually occurred. What has Walker done to handle these unexpected peaks?
CW: We have seen a huge surge in online orders for products from many of our clients across a wide range of industries, including ‘keep fit’ products to help deal with prolonged periods indoors as well as cosmetics and personal care for well-being. The upturn in order volumes has meant we’ve had to increase staff levels across our operations teams.
We are fortunate to have a talented and flexible pool of casual workers locally and receive a huge number of enquiries from intelligent young people and students seeking temporary work opportunities.
But we always put the welfare of those who work for us first and stringent measures regarding social distancing have been implemented across our business. These include spacing all workstations, splitting breaks, providing outside seating areas, subsidising lifts to and from work to minimise car sharing and having large stocks of hygienic wipes, gels, masks and gloves available for our staff to use.
In addition to recruiting extra temporary staff we have been holding hourly planning meetings, flexing our materials handling equipment resources, extending shifts and adding extra shifts during the week and on Sunday to cope with what has, in the case of some clients, been a 100% uplift in orders. We’ve also been liaising with our courier partners and arranging additional or later collections where necessary.
As lockdown eases we’re working closely with our customers in an attempt to accurately forecast future order volumes and the likely split between B-2-C online and B-2-B retail business. If e-commerce transactions remain high and orders for replenishment stock to retail outlets come back on stream, we will ensure that we have sufficient staff and throughput-efficient picking systems in place to sustain the consistently high levels of service that our customers expect and demand.
JB: How will Black Friday be different this year for the world of logistics?
CW: It is tempting to believe that this year’s Black Friday experience will follow a similar pattern to previous years. There is some industry-wide concern that if the present market conditions and high online order volumes currently being experienced are sustained into Q4 and the Black Friday period brings a further spike in demand, courier companies may find they are struggling to cope with order volumes and this is something we are monitoring closely.
However, should the predicted post-lockdown slump in the economy begin to bite and we see unemployment rise significantly, people will have less disposable income to spend on the ‘non-essentials’ that have usually prove popular in Black Friday sales, so things may be quieter.