Voice and the omnichannel advantage

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By Philip Jarrett, director of sales & marketing, BEC (Systems Integration) Ltd.

Within the retail industry, warehouses have traditionally been tasked with fulfilling bulk consignments to the store. This involves putting in place a highly efficient methodology whereby all tasks – from picking and replenishment, to stock moves, stock count, stock cycles etc. – are executed in a highly efficient manner.

However, the past few years have seen phenomenal growth in ecommerce; whereby single items often need to be dispatched to single consumers. Today, consumers have a number of ways to place their orders: in store, on the internet or on their smartphone. This is often referred to as omnichannel retailing.

This added level of shopping convenience for the consumer has, understandably, resulted in additional challenges for warehouse and DC professionals – particularly when there is now the additional growing trend for next-day (or even same-day) delivery to the consumer. Related to the direct-to-customer trend is the rise in returned goods, which requires a particularly deft reverse logistics methodology in the warehouse or DC, ensuring returned goods are inspected and re-stocked quickly and efficiently.

Voice-directed picking solutions have over a number of years proven to be a highly effective and cost-efficient way of optimising picking and replenishment accuracy, as well as speeding up the daily performance of the workforce in the warehouse or DC. Now, with the advent of omnichannel retailing, the importance of Voice is greater than ever.

Philip Jarrett: "For warehouses and DCs serving today's retail sector, it's not just about fulfilling bulk orders to store; it's just as important to have the ability to speedily and accurately fulfil individual direct-to-consumer consignments."

Logistical challenges

Interestingly, just as there is now an omnichannel route to placing orders, from a technology point of view there is now also a tried and tested omnichannel means of picking and replenishing goods in the warehouse. For example, at BEC we have a customer in the cosmetics sector whereby the ecommerce side of their business is growing rapidly. This poses certain logistical challenges, especially during the Christmas period. From a scanning perspective, well-established Voice-directed picking solutions – such as the Vocollect Voice solutions from Honeywell – have integrated scanners built into the hardware.

This is a big advantage for users such as our cosmetics customer, which has to pick and replenish single product items such as small eyeliners and lipsticks where the digits underneath the barcodes on those types of products can be too small to read. This is the type of instance when a scan is required and this is where warehouses and DCs can really reap the benefit of having a scanning facility on their Voice system when this is the best solution for the task. This omnichannel combination of Voice and scanning technologies works very well together in today's omnichannel world of retail.

From a screen perspective, sometimes there is a requirement for a scanned product to match an image on the device in order for the picker to double-check that it is the right item. For example, an item in a particular colour might be required, although all colour options for the product have the same barcode number. This is another good example of the use of omnichannel technology.

Over the past few years, the benefits of Voice-directed systems and related technology for the modern warehouse and DC environment have been well-proven. According to a Tompkins Associates white paper titled: Order Picking for the 21st Century – Voice vs. Scanning Technology, companies who have invested in Voice systems are seeing productivity increases of over 25%, and are pleased with the reduced turnover and training time required for their labour force. The paper also states that users can achieve accuracy rates of up to 99.9% and above.

Using pick lists, organisations record information on paper and this data then has to be inputted into a PC at a central point where somebody approves all the pick lists. Understandably, this methodology is open to human error; with incorrect codes, or even incorrect quantities, being inputted. Also, the writing on the pick sheet might be illegible and the person inputting the data may have to make a guess as to what the correct information is. Voice eliminates the need for secondary input of data, and so increases the speed of output and accuracy levels. This is because the information is input at source directly to the backend system.

Voice even provides a health & safety benefit insofar as the operator is working hands- and eyes-free. Using paper pick lists has always posed a danger because if the worker is looking down at the list there is a risk that he or she might not be aware that, say, a forklift truck is heading in their direction.

The right choice

So, Voice offers a number of proven benefits to the modern omnichannel-focused warehouse or DC. However, once a company has made the decision to investigate Voice in more detail, it is important to carefully evaluate the quality of the devices offered by different vendors. Take the listening kit, for example. In the case of the headsets of Honeywell Vocollect Voice solutions, these are fitted with three microphones – two to cancel most of the extraneous background noise and one to pick up the voice of the user. This type of equipment is a major benefit to users operating in noisy warehouses, with forklift trucks travelling up and down aisles and radios playing all day long. Without this type of noise filtering mechanism, warehouse operatives can get frustrated by having to ask the Voice system to regularly repeat instructions. Naturally, this can also slow down the picking and replenishment process – definitely something to avoid in today's omnichannel world.

The Voice devices should also be robust, so the user has the ability to sweat the asset for a number of years. In the warehouse or DC environment, weak and flimsy solutions are unlikely to last very long. Voice devices are rarely treated with kid gloves. For example, users take them off and swap them over after their shift, and they often get unhooked from the user's belt and put on a forklift where they can easily fall onto the concrete floor. So, it is important to source robust Voice equipment that is fit for the modern, busy omnichannel warehouse or DC environment.

Unique voice verification technology is also invaluable. In the case of Honeywell Voice solutions, its voice-trained system is capable of learning the unique profile of each user as opposed to simply recognising the sound of any user's voice. This means that if, for example, a particular user has a cold, he or she will still be able to operate the system because it is able to tune into the frequency of an individual voice profile. This voice verification technology can also ensure the system is only being used by an authorised person.

Established reputation

I believe it is also important for warehouse and DC professionals to source their Voice system from an experienced, reputable systems integrator that specialises in this type of implementation. There is little point in putting a Voice system in place if a warehouse or DC has no intention of improving its current process constraints. The systems integrator of choice should be able to re-map the warehouse or DC in order to make it as efficient as possible. It is then that the Voice technology should be applied; a technology that can help to optimise the new processes. In order to do this, the systems integrator needs a firm understanding of the optimum flow of a warehouse or DC. Engaging, say, a field force automation specialist to undertake this type of project with little or no knowledge of how a warehouse and DC should flow is unlikely to end well.

For warehouses and DCs serving today's retail sector, it's not just about fulfilling bulk orders to store; it's just as important to have the ability to speedily and accurately fulfil individual direct-to-consumer consignments. The best Voice-directed picking and replenishment solutions – together with their complementary scanning capability – feature mature technology that has been proven to be fit for the task in today's omnichannel world.

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