Fulfillment Orchestration – Hey, They're Playing Our Song!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of our blog posts address “big picture” issues, such as ensuring a successful eCommerce launch, selecting an eCommerce solution, or integrating your CMS with an eCommerce solution. But it’s always fun to change things up and look at issues from new perspectives. There are lots of people here at ten24 who are responsible for making the magic happen every day. From time to time, we’re going to hand them the mic and ask them to talk about the issues that are near and dear to them. Everyone in this company has unique talents, strengths, and insights – we hope you’ll enjoy learning a little more about the topics that our team members are so passionate about.

Today’s post is based on a discussion we had with Ian Hickey, Lead Application Developer.

O.K., be honest: How much thought do you actually give to the subject of eCommerce fulfillment? If you’re like the average consumer, your answer is probably, “Not a whole lot.” When most people order something online, they assume, “Oh, the retailer just ships my stuff to me.” The reality, however, is quite different. In fact, fulfillment may be one of the most abstract and complex things you’ve never thought about.

According to Hickey, it’s not just the act of simply filling orders. It’s everything that goes along with it, from locating and moving inventory from one place to another, to making sure it arrives to the customer when it’s supposed to using the most appropriate delivery method.

“The term ‘fulfillment orchestration’ is really a much more accurate description of what’s involved,” he observes. Hickey ought to know: For the past year, he’s pretty much been dedicated to studying an incredibly complicated process and figuring out how to turn it into something incredibly easy.

In the most basic sense of the word, “fulfillment” is the mechanism by which something gets from the typical eCommerce store site to the customer. There are different types of fulfillments, including digital fulfillment, futures, and of course the more common shipping fulfillment from industry leaders like Amazon. If you think of fulfillment as a spectrum, digital fulfillment is on one end: It’s the most simple kind, because there isn’t a physical product that’s being delivered. Rather, your digital content is delivered directly to you immediately after you’ve placed your order. That delivery usually comes in the form of a link to the content you’ve purchased (the link appears on your order confirmation page). There’s no customer service intervention necessary, because there are no actual goods leaving warehouses.  

The process becomes more complicated when you’re at the other end of the spectrum and you need to get physical goods onto customers’ doorsteps and into people’s hands. Now you’re dealing with real-world inventory that could be spread out over multiple warehouses located in various states or even in other countries. And this is where things can start getting really hairy.

Historically, most eCommerce companies have used an extremely tedious process to deal with shipping fulfillments. To locate, track, and move their inventory, retailers have typically relied on a series of old-school spreadsheets that must be updated manually on a daily basis by multiple people. Those same people then have to go into the systems of shippers like FedEx and UPS to create and generate individual shipping labels. As you can imagine, the whole procedure can be extremely time-consuming, especially when you’re dealing with high volumes of orders. And of course, so much reliance on manual processes and multiple operators increases the likelihood of mistakes caused by human error.

But this picture doesn’t have to be so bleak. eCommerce platforms can bring ease, automation, and accuracy into the fulfillment process. “Your platform should be able to handle lots of types of fulfillments for a variety of use cases,” Hickey says. “The simplest types are obviously the ones that can happen automatically, like when a customer places an order for digital content. But for physical deliveries as well, you need to have a robust dashboard that orchestrates orders with similar fulfillment types as well as similar methods of shipping within those types.”

eCommerce fulfillment orchestration is all about harnessing the power of batches. The goal is to give users the ability to break down the kinds of shipment fulfillments they need (for example, they should be able to classify shipments according to whether they’ll be delivered by FedEx, UPS, or a private courier service). This classification means that users can batch their fulfillments and filter the orders in them accordingly. Users might want to filter shipping by everything that’s waiting to be fulfilled, but they also might need to filter by date range (a good example of the latter would be a user who’d like to see the past 24 hours of shipping via FedEx Ground).  

Once you’ve figured out what it is you’re going to be batch fulfilling and you’ve created a batch with all of those orders, you’ll want to assign the batch to a person who makes sure all these fulfillments happen. This person gets notified that a new batch is waiting, and he or she will be responsible for ensuring that all orders are sent on the day and time specified for that particular batch. And because these orders are in the same batch, their shipping methods and costs will have already been calculated and the shipping labels will automatically print out. Your eCommerce fulfillment solution should give you the power to generate warehouse lists that detail the locations of the inventory for the orders in that batch.

The advantage of having batches assigned to a specific person is that automated emails will go to that person when the batch is ready for fulfillment. At that point, the contact person goes through the batch and selects what will be fulfilled from each order on that specific day. Ideally, your system will do everything else. In the matter of a couple of minutes, stock automatically moves from where it is to where it needs to be so it can ultimately be delivered to the customer.

“With the exception of assigning a person to a batch, the entire fulfillment process should be a single button-push from being completed,” Hickey says. “Electronic fulfillment is a real game-changer for people.”

But that’s just the beginning. A comprehensive fulfillment platform (like Slatwall, for example) provides a complete audit history. This means users can see the entire fulfillment chain, and they can even view who’s made changes to an order. They can also set restrictions, to ensure that only certain people are able to alter things, or prevent changes from being made to specific things.  

Hickey admits that initially, it can sometimes be challenging to convince clients to give up their familiar old spreadsheets. “But once they get used to it and realize what automation can do for them, they never go back,” he says. “It’s just so easy to do it the new way. All of the cumbersome spreadsheets, the multiple computer terminals, the paperwork, the errors – all of those things are replaced with the push of a button.”

With benefits that include automation, elimination of redundancy, fewer mistakes, and the convenience of batch processing, one thing is obvious: Fulfillment orchestration is music to our ears (and to yours too)!

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