Retail’s not the same as it used to be. Gone are the days where we walk to our local fruit and veg store, carry our purchases in paper bags and store it in larders.

It seems like worlds away from where we position ourselves these days, thanks to the latest innovations of retail technology (…says the twenty-something-year-old millennial who has never really experienced retail in any other way than with technology and convenience). Convenience is what consumers want – that I do know. We are currently living in the epitome of consumerism, and the supply chain is forced to keep up. So what’s the latest innovations technology is contributing to the supply chains in 2019?

Customisation of garments

Technology has enabled e-commerce to create products and platforms that go further than just dropping a pair of jeans in your e-basket. Retailers are now able to offer ultimate customer experiences, such as modification of their products. Sportswear giant, Nike, allows customers to design their own personalised shoe, changing elements such as colour, material, textures and stitching to their own personal preference. Incorporating choice into product lines is great for the customer, but how does it affect the supply chain? One obvious knock-on effect of customising garments is the shortening of product cycles. It is said that competitor, Adidas, has invested in a ‘speedfactory’, where customised designs are made by in-house robots which will speed up the supply chain process to reach the customer. However, Nike’s SKU-organised system tries to tackle the strict product cycle by allowing up to ten variations of one ‘customisable’ shoe model, organised by SKU numbers. Clearly brands are making efforts to ensure that allowing customisation is feasible under the time pressures of the trading market, but it does leave the question of whether retailers (and the supply chain) are ready for these high expectations of merchandising. Is the industry prepared enough to offer options for customer-tailored, rapidly produced and delivered products? Will this create a retail revelation? 

Hema’s QR codes

Some retailers use QR codes to simplify shopping, but what if was the pinnacle of your shopping and dining experience? China’s latest innovation in this technology is called Hema’s QR. The Alibaba Group’s Hema ‘supermarket’ is based in Shanghai, which also features a robot controlled restaurant. Customers who visit the store scan their individual Hema QR code from their smartphone for scanning foods, finding out nutritional information, recipes and to pay for their items. If customers visit the restaurant, they are required to scan their QR code which tells them where to sit. Once the food has been prepared, robot food-carriers travel to its customer’s table…table service on wheels. How does this affect the supply chain? Customers within a 3km radius of Hema stores can order groceries, which will be picked, packed and delivered to them within as little as 30 minutes. Once the items have been picked by a store worker, the basket travels via conveyor belt for the rest of the distribution to take place. Distribution is completed through robots, meaning that this in-house operation does not require manual labour.

Amazon Lockers

Working similarly to a ‘click and collect’ function, parcels can now be delivered to Amazon Lockers. These lockers are set in locations that open early and close late at night, for example 24-hour gyms, universities, hospitals, business parks and shopping complexes. There are restrictions, which consist of only accepting parcels up to 42cm x 35cm x 32cm in dimension, with a maximum weight of 4.5kg and from Amazon-seller accounts (not third-party sellers). Dangerous or age-restricted items are prohibited for Amazon Locker delivery. Consumers no longer have to be home for deliveries, and can, instead, pick up their parcel at their own convenience. Parcels stay in Amazon Lockers up to three days after its delivery date, before being automatically returned to Amazon. Picking up parcels is as simple as entering a few details and your allocated locker automatically unlocking. This new form of delivery is a safe way to pick up orders on the go, whether it’s after your gym session or a day at work. As for the supply chain, the more variety for parcel pick-ups means less packages returned to the mail depot for further attempted deliveries.  

Electronic shelf labels

Now, these aren’t exactly new. I remember seeing an electronic shelf label in a supermarket when I was on holiday in France about ten years ago. However, I have never seen one in the UK. In fact, I’ve not seen one since. Electronic shelf labels (ESL) are simply electronic price tags attached to shelves, displaying (usually) LCD prices.
The prices are operated through a label management software and can be modified, changing the display settings, prices and product descriptions through wireless communication. The typical ESL will us ultra-low-power, meaning that the system for an entire supermarket is both low powered and low cost. An obvious benefit to this is that shop workers don’t have to manually change ticket prices, especially during intense levels of price-changing such as during sales. Should stock change location within the supermarket, the details can be altered accordingly through the wireless program.

Amazon’s Alexa

At the other end of the supply-chain spectrum, warehouses are now using technology to assist with the high demand of online deliveries. Amazon’s Alexa feature is now being used in warehouses to ensure picking, packing and shipping goals are met. Alexa is a programme that responds to audio (usually performed by the user), through AI technology.

The timeframe for deliveries are shrinking, so the utilisation of Alexa’s speech-directed software helps with tasks such as picking, packing and distribution. According to a 2018 Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) and DC Velocity survey, about one quarter of warehouses use systems similar to Alexa, which is up 5.7% more than what was recorded in 2008.

Technology is utilised to assist with different sectors of the supply chain. From warehouses to the shop floor, it all boils down to one thing: keeping up with the consumer’s demands.

Rachel Jefferies, Editor, FORWARDER magazine