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Here's How the IoT Can Help Manage Holiday Orders

By Megan Ray Nichols December 17, 2020

It’s no surprise that the holiday shopping season is going to look much different this year with a pandemic wreaking havoc. Everyone is social-distancing and staying at home as much as possible. As a result, many retailers have encouraged shoppers to do so online, from the safety of their homes.

What this means is a much greater emphasis on automated order processing systems, general logistics and, of course, shipping companies. Incoming orders must be processed and passed to pickers, who then collect the items, package them and send them off for shipping. Shipping companies — like USPS, FedEx and UPS — pick up the relevant packages or parcels and transport them directly to the customer’s doorstep.

It’s no different than conventional online orders and shipments, but the volume is much higher. Many businesses could slump from 96% or 98% on-time delivery rates to 80% and below.

Automation, powered by machine learning and IoT, can significantly improve preparedness and logistics processes.

Smart Inventory Management
Instead of manually keeping track of inventory counts and conducting regular audits, IoT sensors can be used to monitor stock. They can be configured to measure and track a variety of details, from product weights and packaging to the total number of items and beyond. Even better, the systems can be customized to follow a variety of triggers. For example, if the stock starts flying off the shelf, the system can order new stock much sooner than it normally would, ensuring that the inventory remains replenished to keep up with demand.

This flow of data helps the system make smarter decisions in the future, too, like when it needs to order similar products or plan for new product releases. Historical data can help inform future events, giving a clear picture of performance and what the system should expect.

More Precise Picking
Many warehouses are not just massive, but they’re also confusing even to long-term employees. The general layout can play a role in productivity, process times and even customer experiences. If and when employees can not find an item to pick for an order, that’s going to cause some serious issues.

IoT shelving, sensors and beacons can help workers find and pick items in a faster, more precise manner. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter if they know the layout of the warehouse by heart. The system tells them exactly where to go, where to look and what an item looks like. This is precisely what Amazon uses in their order fulfillment centers. A voice-enabled tool tells pickers where to go and how to get there.

Indoor mapping and GPS options are available too. Workers can use a small display to navigate the warehouse and find items quickly and efficiently.

Real-Time Logistics
It’s possible to attach IoT-enabled smart sensors to shipments or containers. The information beams to a home server or central tracking team, who can then organize the various processes to ensure timely delivery. Many third-party logistics providers have this technology in place too, so it’s possible to find and partner with someone who does. Since holiday logistics can be a nightmare, the technology vastly improves management, tracking and facilitation.

Imagine a fulfillment vehicle that has malfunctioned or broken down. Remotely, a logistics management team can organize a pickup, with the aid of a nearby driver, to ensure all items make it to their delivery point on time. This helps minimize delays but also accounts for unforeseen consequences and events, like wildfires, inclement weather, equipment failures and much more.

Managing Store Capacity
While a lot of orders will be placed online and shipped to a residence, there will still be people visiting local stores. Retailers need to ensure they’re adhering to capacity limits and that customers actively follow social distancing and safety guidelines. IoT devices can help here too.

AI security solutions can be used to monitor video feeds and identify customers not wearing masks or following guidelines. Moreover, voice assistant technology — think Alexa or Siri — can help remind customers as they enter a business to honor the proper precautions.

Beacons can be used to deliver smart notifications to mobile devices, letting people know when they’re too close to another customer or associate, for example. More importantly, the same technology can count and report the number of customers in a store or department, allowing for proper traffic and attendance limitations.

Businesses Cannot Ignore the Benefits of IoT
Regardless of the systems in place, IoT will continue to play a huge role in many of the retail and logistics processes of today. The concerns already existed, but COVID-19 has become the catalyst for smart, efficient and safe operations. Businesses no longer have a choice, they have to prioritize these elements, lest they get left behind.

Any burdens that existed have become amplified even more during the holiday shopping season. Luckily, the Internet of Things can help, in the ways discussed here and more.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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