Jo Bradley, business development manager at Packaging by Quadient, explains the latest packaging automation technologies and how they can help retailers scale up during peak periods.
As well as more predictable peaks such as Black Friday and Boxing Day, modern retail is subject to sudden surges in demand as a result of unexpected events as diverse as heat waves, sporting successes, hit TV shows or celebrity endorsements. In fashion, spikes in demand can be even more erratic, triggered by sudden or dynamic discounting to clear stock quickly. And with ever-tighter delivery promises, peaks are no longer measured in weeks or days, but by the hour.
These peaks stress test the whole fulfilment and delivery process, including packaging. Constructing boxes, packing, weighing, sealing and labelling manually is a slow process, and few shippers have either the physical space or the available labour to create additional packing stations for what may be only a few days’ work. Finding a flexible labour force, available at short notice, is also becoming increasingly difficult as a result of Brexit. So, how will online retailers cope with the new reality of frequent and dramatic spikes in demand?
The case for greater use of automation in the packing area is compelling. However, simple size-constrained machines using only one-size of box does not cater for the wide variety of products and order sizes experienced by most online retailers. If demand for smaller items to be packed exceeds the capacity of the relevant machine, the shipper has no option but to move up a box size, or two, or three.
The consequences are not good. It is understood that 60% of ecommerce deliveries are by volume at least a quarter composed of bubble-wrap, polystyrene beads or just fresh air. Much of the dunnage is essentially non-recyclable, but without it the damage rate for small items slamming about in large boxes, already high, becomes unacceptable to consumers and creates an ever-bigger returns problem. It has been estimated that an ecommerce item can go through around 50 touch points, or opportunities for damage, compared with around 10 for a bricks & mortar sale.
The excessive use of cardboard is itself a scandal. According to the packaging recycling and reduction group WRAP, between 2014 and 2017 use of paper and card in non-grocery consumer retail increased by 11%, to 934,000 tonnes a year. With the economy effectively flat-lined over this period it is fair to assume that most of this increase was due to the shift to ecommerce – and with oversized packages being commonplace, a large part of this consumption is bound to have been wasteful.
Packaging waste doesn’t play well with consumers. Half (48%) of those in a ‘Which’ survey say that excess packaging is ‘the most annoying thing’ about Internet shopping, and with ‘unboxing’ now being a thing on social media, brands that package orders wastefully expose themselves to significant risk of reputational damage. Excess packaging clogs up the recycling loop, from the consumer’s green bin to recycling plants; it costs shippers money both in materials and in Producer Obligation payments. Oversize boxes fill up roll cages and despatch bays and require more delivery vehicles and drivers to fulfil orders, which has a negative impact on the environment. And with carrier or postal charges typically calculated at least in part volumetrically, the retailer is also incurring excessive shipping costs.
What can be done?
The case for a fast, efficient, economical and secure means of automating the packaging and labelling of online orders is convincing – but how can it be done? Can boxes be individually made to the exact size required for each order, secured, weighed and labelled automatically at speeds capable of efficiently and cost-effectively matching peak volumes? Effectively, could a machine flex to demand, even at volumes of up to a thousand packages an hour? The answer is yes.
By choosing an automated solution to ‘right-size’ ecommerce deliveries, retailers can meet their fulfilment promises, even in the peaks, while respecting the environment, reducing transit damage, and saving money.