Efficient returns management benefits the customer, retailer and environment

How supply chain visibility and intelligent packing support a sustainable returns process

A deliver driver prepares to load a returned package onto his truck to take back to the warehouse.
by Mark Jolley
April 22, 2019

Online returns are a right under the Consumer Contracts Regulation in the U.K. They are expected by consumers globally. Although returns don't have to be offered free of charge, it’s a big selling point if they are. The modern consumer frequently over-orders: an eye-watering 30 percent of online purchases are returned on average – a number that’s more than three times higher than the 9 percent return rate experienced by traditional brick-and-mortar operations. One of the implications that cannot be ignored is environmental damage at the expense of convenience.

With the rise in global events, campaigns and movements like Earth Day, it’s clear that the future of our planet is a concern for people the world over. So, even though consumers may be driving demand for convenient, hassle-free returns options, they also feel strongly about the effects of climate change, sustainability, pollution and waste. More informed than ever, they like to interact with businesses that demonstrate exemplary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This is especially the case for millennials, of which 87 percent would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues. With this in mind, retailers are facing a balancing act: optimizing efficiency of reverse logistics and keeping the customer satisfied whilst minimizing impact on the planet. That is why it is so important to understand how supply chain visibility, intelligent loading/shipping and the use of RFID tracking and drop-off/collection networks can be utilized to achieve this balance.

Supply chain visibility that delivers
With an increase in global logistics year-over-year (of which e-commerce constitutes a large portion), visibility into the supply chain from the warehouse to the last mile is becoming essential for efficient deliveries and returns. Picking and sending the correct consignments out in the first place, in the appropriate condition, will counteract some of the returns generated by supply chain inefficiencies. Dealing with the collection of unwanted or damaged goods, and possibly sending a replacement, all adds to the carbon footprint of the retailer (and compensation claims) so getting it right the first time is critical. As such, it is just as important to employ smart technology in the warehouse that provides real-time data about customer interactions outside the four walls and enables you to honor cancelled orders, even if the request comes in at the last minute.  

Supplying barcoded labels or packaging with goods before they leave the warehouse is an effective way to ensure any returned packages can be tracked and sorted correctly, to control waste and reuse stock where feasible. Some retailers are doing this already; their e-commerce systems anticipate that a customer may plan to return some or all of the order (because he or she ordered the same shirt in different sizes, for example). Once returned, barcodes, RFID technology, scanners and mobile computers can pull up product details to help assess a product’s suitability for resale before it is placed back in stock. From an environmental perspective, this maximizes reuse, recycling or recirculation, ensures products are not simply binned or later lost in the system and reduces unnecessary transportation.

Intelligent loading and shipping are also key

At the loading dock, managers cannot physically view all dock doors to oversee operations, and staff are often inexperienced seasonal workers or not yet fully trained. Relying on personnel to judge truck volume by their eyes alone leads to improper loading and poorly-informed decision making, resulting in wasted space and sometimes dangerously-stacked goods. Shipping ‘air’ instead of parcels is clearly a waste of time and money, with excess lorries on the road leading to more fuel consumption and pollution.

Forward-looking companies realize that maximizing trailer space makes the delivery process more competitive, efficient, safe and secure – and of course environmentally friendly. In order to future-proof your operations, you need visibility into key load metrics, ensuring every load is space efficient. It will come as no surprise that a data-driven approach can provide incredibly smart solutions. With trailer monitoring systems such as Zebra SmartPack™, 3D sensors and red, green and blue (RGB) cameras analyze loading operations in real-time, calculating the build profile of a container/truck in terms of density, fullness and weight. Information is translated into a user-friendly dashboard (viewable on a mobile or static device), with alerts triggered by scenarios like idle bays or under-loaded trucks. This smart loading also ensures packages are stacked appropriately so as to avoid damage – reducing the likelihood of a return.

Once on the road, GPS, RFID, scanning and camera technology provide real-time data on deliveries, including the last-mile delivery. Although this is nothing new, it is a key step in eliminating redelivery attempts or claims of non-delivery (leading to unnecessary mileage, pollution and reordering). This visibility is of interest to all supply chain stakeholders and shortening the delivery window is more convenient for customers too. Single collection/drop-off points for deliveries and returns like parcel shops, lockers and combined retail stores are proving to be efficient solutions across Europe and with tracking in other regions. These single-point locations allow you to reduce delivery time and mileage through consolidated shipments/collections and could potentially end the common consumer issue of ‘missed deliveries’. Fleet management via route planning and optimization ensures no journey is a wasted one and keeps the chain moving. Imagine a concierge for a whole suburban area, not just for a residential block.

In Zebra’s recent study The Future of Fulfillment, 68 percent of global retailers ranked returns of online orders as a key challenge – a challenge that is financial, logistical and environmental. The e-commerce retailers that will thrive are those who are environmentally-conscious as well as customer-focused. With millions of parcels in the supply chain, smart data-driven solutions from the point of order are the only way to keep pace with demands as they currently offer the best way to facilitate end-to-end visibility and intelligent decision-making. Is it time you found the right technological partner to future-proof your returns process?

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Editor’s Note: This blog was first published to mark Earth Day 2019, a global annual event. It’s believed that more than 1 billion people in 192 countries now take part in what is the largest civic-focused day of action in the world.

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Are you attending the Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference in Phoenix, AZ, on May 13-16, 2019? Stop by Zebra booth #330 to speak with one of our supply chain experts about your current transportation and logistics challenges. They will help you identify the technology solutions that can best support your operational improvement goals.

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Mark Jolley
Mark Jolley leads the Solutions Sales team in EMEA focused on Manufacturing and Transport and Logistics.













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