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What to look for in an omnichannel fulfillment provider

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As consumers grow accustomed to conducting their shopping journeys across multiple channels, retailers are struggling to keep up by implementing an ever-growing range of omnichannel offerings; click and collect, online orders in-store, curbside pick-up, in-store returns… the list goes on.

But omnichannel retail is impossible to achieve without a robust omnichannel fulfillment strategy; if you can’t get your goods from A to B at exactly the right time, your strategy will quickly fall apart. That’s why it’s a good idea to partner with an omnichannel fulfillment provider who can coordinate these processes on your behalf.

But why should you consider omnichannel retail in the first place, and what kinds of challenges can a 3PL help you to address? We’re going to discuss this and more in today’s post.

The benefits of omnichannel fulfillment

Enhancing the customer experience. Consumers used to be the most sensitive to price and product variations. But faced with a crowded retail marketplace that offers limitless choice, flexibility is now the name of the game. The retailers who win big in this climate are those willing to support their customers on retail journeys that span multiple channels; nearly three-quarters of consumers say that they want a consistent retail experience across channels.

Using your resources more effectively. When your selling channels are siloed off from one another, you’re only using a fraction of your capabilities to get orders to your customers in the fastest possible timeframe. By utilizing all channels at your disposal, you can create a far nimbler and more responsive fulfillment strategy.

Cohesive branding. Offering a consistent shopping experience online and offline ensures that your customers are always immersed in the best that your brand has to offer. Cohesive branding at key touchpoints during the customer journey helps to foster brand awareness, which in turn builds trust in you as a retailer.

Why you should partner with an omnichannel fulfillment provider

Omnichannel might be the future of retail, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to coordinate. If you haven’t been an omnichannel retailer from the beginning (and very few retailers are) this is going to require a big transition for your fulfillment operation. 

Running an integrated inventory system and facilitating omni-directional shopping journeys is challenging to pull off without the right infrastructure and expertise – and this is where an experienced omnichannel logistics provider can make all the difference.

The challenges of omnichannel fulfillment

Adjusting the role of your physical stores

In omnichannel fulfillment, your stores are no longer just a place for selling to your in-store customers. Due to the difficulty of visualizing and trying products when shopping online, many customers are driven to browse in-store in a practice known as ‘showrooming’. In fact, 72% of consumers consider brick and mortar to be the most important shopping channel. 

With this in mind, retailers need to widen the scope of their operation to facilitate new shopping behaviors, such as choosing to explore products in-store and buy online later. Faced with the growing popularity of BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick-up In-store) and next-day delivery, stores also have an important role to play as micro-fulfillment centers and repurposed inventory, which requires a big cultural shift for retailers.

Increased reliance on technology

When you’re managing an integrated inventory system, real-time visibility and automated fulfillment techniques become critical to eliminating inefficiencies that can disrupt your fulfillment operation. However, these can come with high running costs that are rarely sustainable for businesses to manage independently. This because implementation and maintenance require expertise that many retailers don’t have internally, which can put considerable strain on your omnichannel fulfillment strategy.

Communication between selling channels

If you’re a multichannel retailer who has traditionally kept your channels separate, omnichannel retailing requires a major shift in your communication strategy. Where your store locations and online store may previously have had little contact with each other, open dialogue is essential in order to synchronize cross-channel fulfillment and ensure the orders as processed as soon as they’re received. 

Real-time inventory visibility

A good way to think about your inventory is like a game of chess; you need to have all your pieces in exactly the right place to stand a chance of winning the game.

Now imagine trying to play chess only being able to see half the pieces. How can you make any strategic decisions when you only have half the picture? 

Your inventory is no different. If you don’t have full visibility over exactly where your SKUs are located at any given time, it’s impossible to get any insight into the state of your inventory levels. 

Your fulfillment provider should be able to equip you with real-time inventory management capabilities, like those offered by the Whiplash platform, so you can make more informed decisions about where to commit your inventory and avoid costly stockouts. 

Integration with your existing systems

Integration, Integration. Integration. We can never talk about this one enough on this blog. As an omnichannel retailer, you’re going to be relying on a broad range of systems to make your operation work. If you add another partner into the mix who cannot facilitate a seamless integration with your existing software, you’re going to cause yourself no end of problems.

For example, if in-store staff aren’t able to look at stock levels in your warehouse because your provider’s WMS isn’t compatible, this destroys the seamless nature of omnichannel in one fell swoop.

If native integrations aren’t immediately available, check that your provider has the IT capabilities to build one via open API that is ready by the time you onboard.

Effective reverse logistics

In addition to outbound orders, omnichannel fulfillment providers need to be able to handle a multitude of returns methods. This includes in-store returns, mail-in returns, and alternative locations such as returns lockers. In fact, nearly two-thirds of consumers say that they still prefer to return in-store.

It’s critical to choose a partner with effective transportation and shipping solutions who can quickly move returned stock from the point of return to the necessary facility or store location. This means that items can be processed and returned to the shelf as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you’re likely to lose out on vital reselling opportunities due to transit problems.

Your omnichannel retailing efforts will go much further if you make the decision to partner with an omnichannel fulfillment provider experienced in handling integrated inventory and complex IT requirements. As consumers come to expect ever more seamless shopping journeys, a 3PL will reinforce your value proposition by enabling faster and more responsive logistics for memorable customer experiences.

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