What is automation's role in fulfillment?

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The gloves are off
The gloves are off

Chris Castaldi
VP of client develop­ment, AL Systems
Has sales manage­ment experience at FKI Logistex and Komatsu

Many retailers are feeling the crunch of a slowing economy and are trying to improve fulfillment processes. The idea is to keep products on shelves consistently so that customers will continue to buy. Retailers must balance sales forecasts with inventory levels, taking into account seasonal or cyclical spikes and dips to avoid embarrassing inventory shortages and inadequate warehouse staffing.

Even when this is in check, fulfill­ment problems can arise if there are bottlenecks in the distribution center. Adding automation to the center in the form of paperless picking and packing, cross docking, high-volume manifest­ing, automated sorting and conveyor control solutions improves the flow of merchandise through distribution centers, allowing retailers and retail vendors to distribute products faster and more accurately.

There is a direct connection between customer satisfaction and profitabil­ity, so shipping the correct order to a customer at the right time is essential to the bottom line. Keeping commitments to customers, such as the promise of when an order will ship or having the products they want to buy, allows re­tailers to maintain customer satisfaction and retention. Customers will come back and order time and time again if the products they want to buy are available when they want to buy them.

David Bernard
Managing director, DB Marketing Technologies
Former division director at Omni­com's Quantum Plus

For many executives, automated fulfillment means “plug it in and forget it.” The result: The company falls asleep at the wheel while marketing drives off a cliff.

Customer databases are error-prone. They receive feeds from multiple sources, requiring active management to address the lapses in quality and integrity of each source. In addition, the business rules governing validation of customer data, segment assignment and fulfillment selection can be very complex, and different rules may exist both at the customer database and at each data source, requiring oversight and synchronization. Even the most perfect automated fulfillment process will likely fail to send the right items to the right person at the right time when the customer database that drives it contains inconsistencies and errors. Under usual circumstances, customer marketing databases are not actively managed by their owners, and issues are allowed to develop.

This does not mean, however, that we abandon automated fulfillment. I am actually a big fan of automation. It can save companies money, reduce the need for manual intervention and make fulfillment run more smoothly. The key is to fully audit your customer marketing database prior to implement­ing automated fulfillment, and perform audits every 18-24 months.


With social media and customer reviews on the rise, smooth fulfillmentis crucial to gaining customer loyalty and maintaining a catalog or e-commerce site's reputation. More automation, as Castaldi suggests, is a way to achieve this. However, Bernard's point about data cleansing is a good one, and is the backbone of any automated fulfillment operation.

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