According to ONS data, total online retail sales increased by 46.1% from 2019 to 2020, the highest annual growth reported since 2008. The demand for warehouses in the UK has rocketed along with the surge in e-commerce. So, how can you optimise your businesses to stay on top of this demand while adhering to the ongoing Covid safety restrictions?

Dan Marchant, director of Vape Club, saw an unprecedented growth during lockdown, peaking at nearly 300% above their normal run rate. Here he provides his insight on how other companies can continue to grow alongside increasingly higher expectations to stay on top of warehouse demand:

Warehouse and employee management

Dispatching 2-3 times the usual orders while maintaining social distancing rules proved to be a real challenge, and it was necessary to shift the warehouse layout so that picking and packing zones were in separate areas. 

We were able to utilise unused areas of our warehouse to install additional packing desks which were spaced over two metres apart and had plastic sheeting separating each area. 

Of course, if anyone was able to work from home we encouraged them to do so, in order to create even more space in the warehouse itself. By moving a large chunk of our office staff to home working we could bring in additional warehouse staff into the building without making it feel cramped.

We also implemented a one-way system in the warehouse for the pickers, meaning that all traffic flow was in the same direction and that pickers could maintain physical distancing of two metres easily.

We were able to ensure picking lists would print in the correct order of the aisles, so that the team did not have to do multiple laps of the warehouse in order to pick one order. Very high volume SKUs were spaced out appropriately, and had secondary positions put in place, so as to eliminate bottlenecks and hold-ups as much as possible.

Keeping one step ahead

Space and supply have provided two of the biggest challenges in scaling up. When business more than doubles overnight it’s hard to keep up. Fortunately when it came to the pandemic we could see the direction the wind was blowing before lockdown actually occurred.

Working as closely as we do with suppliers in China, we were aware of it before it was considered serious in the UK. We had already started to bolster supply, and moved from a six-week order pattern to 12 weeks because we were worried about supply continuity. 

Maintaining a safe environment

Ensuring a Covid-secure workplace means looking at every aspect of the space – and every part of the working day. Staggering break times helps to ensure canteens and break rooms are not overcrowded and staff can physically distance (also it’s a good idea to limit the seating and clearly mark where people can sit).  

We keep shutters open as much as possible to allow the fresh air to circulate. If possible, designate a separate entrance and exit, so people leaving the building do not have to cross paths with people entering the building. 

Being unable to employ more people within the warehouse in order to meet demand created a headache for the business and required some creative solutions. 

We were doing more business than ever, but had to reduce the number of people in the warehouse at any one time to be able to ensure we kept to the physical distancing guidelines. And when you have set collection times from couriers, there is always a very concrete deadline.  

Using warehouse technology

We rotate our stock 10-12 times per year, so that means a lot of inbound deliveries from suppliers and a 2-week order cycle with 150 other suppliers.   

We have developed a suite of bespoke stock management tools to help us automate ordering of products based on patterns, highlighting any anomalies in sales patterns so the purchasing team can react proactively. All purchase orders are managed through the e-commerce platform which gives full visibility of stock movement to finance, management, warehouse and customer service.

Smoothing supply chain operations

Optimising supply chain operations allows you to plan for surges in orders ahead of time.

Stock takes, stock purchases and sourcing of packaging supplies have all stretched our existing teams during the last year. Instead of relying on one supplier for a range of products, we often had to buy from three or more suppliers at different times of the month and all with different prices. 

In order to ensure we always have enough stock to meet demand and keep our supply chain operations running smoothly, we use proprietary stock movement and monitoring APIs that show us daily and weekly sales per stock keeping unit. 

Prioritising the customer experience

It is crucial to set up systems so that customers can get the information they need and have their questions answered at all points in their purchasing journey. 

Our mission during covid has been to ensure that all new customers get to experience the usually high levels of service we provide. This means customers can speak to us via telephone, live chat and email during working hours and orders are dispatched the same day if the order is placed before 7pm. In order to maintain those levels, we had to quickly recruit and train a number of new customer service operatives to bolster our team and continue the high levels of service.

Customers are your best marketing asset, especially in an industry like ours where PPC (Pay Per Click) advertising is prohibited. Our loyal customers referred a lot of their family, friends and colleagues to Vape Club once the stores locked down. The customers knew they could confidently recommend our service as we’ve looked after our customers for many years.

Dan Marchant, Ecommerce Retailer & Director, Vape Club