Operation Save Christmas: retailers’ desperate dash to meet demand

Large stores are having to be creative to meet booming online orders at a time of staff and stock shortages

An army of 3,000 staff will fan out from Marks & Spencer’s head office this week with one mission in mind: meeting the Christmas boom.

Staff whose day jobs typically range from human resources to procurement will head to its network of stores to help pick and pack Christmas online orders.

With a shortage of delivery drivers, stock gaps and booming demand for online shopping, retailers are turning to increasingly creative ideas, from rail and air freight, cargo bikes and direct-from-store deliveries to chartering their own ships, to ensure they can meet demand at the busiest time of the year. After a lockdown-interrupted year, and with households sitting on record levels of savings, much rests on getting this right.

Katie Bickerstaffe, head of M&S’s clothing and home division, calls its stores a “critical part of our supply chain network for [picking up online orders]”. She said the retailer now handles 9% of online orders for its clothing and homeware business direct from 254 stores, compared with just 1% before the pandemic.

Bickerstaffe describes the system as a “genuine competitive advantage”, enabling M&S to make better use of stores and store staff during the peak shopping period.

Workers, who are typically based at its head office in Paddington, west London, normally do one or two days helping with the Christmas rush in M&S’s food department, but this year they will also do an extra day in stores, working on online orders.

In a blog post, Bickerstaffe said: “Every year our 3,000 support centre colleagues go out into our stores to help deliver the best possible Christmas for our customers – service with a smile and a truly seamless experience. In the past the focus has always been on the final days – keeping the milk fridge full in the buzzing foodhall or being an additional colleague on the till, but part of delivering the best service now means meeting the growth of online and having orders ready quickly, so this year, for the first time, colleagues are going in to help with in-store fulfilment.”

M&S’s tactic of using stores as mini-distribution hubs, enabling shoppers to pick up orders made online locally and avoiding the need for costly lorry or van trips, has also been successfully used by other retailers including B&Q.

Other tactics have included chartering dedicated cargo ships to bring in goods, handing out hefty bonuses to attract and retain skilled drivers and switching to rail freight, which Tesco said had helped it keep its shelves better stocked than rivals.

Tesco is not alone. At least four new UK rail freight services a week have begun from UK ports including Liverpool and central distribution hubs such as Doncaster in the last month to service rising demand. Each carries the equivalent of 50 to 80 lorryloads of goods around the country.

Tesco began using a dedicated new train service on Tuesday, which runs from Tilbury in Essex to Scotland, carrying the equivalent of up to 40 lorry loads of goods. Last month three or four “wine express” trains began running from Tilbury and other ports to Daventry in the Midlands.

Julian Worth, chair of the rail freight forum at the Chartered Institute of Transport and Logistics, said that the new train services could carry the equivalent of about 1,000 HGV lorry trips a day.

While hold-ups with international shipping meant that the rail network handled about 5% less consumer goods in the first part of the year, compared with pre-Covid levels, Worth expects volumes to be “well up” this autumn as many more retailers, including smaller specialists, have turned to rail to solve their delivery problems.

“Businesses started [considering rail transport] for decarbonisation and that has been turbocharged by the operational imperative of the driver shortage,” he said.

“Businesses have accelerated their plans for modal shift by two to three years.”

With fuel costs and staff costs on the rise, food and drink producers have also begun looking at building railway sidings or other facilities to bring goods directly to their warehouses by train.

Bottled water producer Highland Spring is building a siding at its main bottling plant in Blackford, Perthshire, while baked bean maker Kraft Heinz has tested bringing in products at night by lifting them straight from a train parked on a line that runs beside its Wigan distribution centre.

The efforts come as driver shortages have combined with poor weather and high demand during the Black Friday sales period to already cause disruption for some major retailers.

John Lewis stretched its standard delivery pledge to 10 days from the usual five days on 23 November partly because of poor weather around the country as well as heavy demand after the Black Friday discount weekend. The company said it expected to shorten delivery times after that glut of orders had been dealt with.

The last orders date for standard delivery for Christmas is currently 20 December, which is similar to last year when the industry was under severe pressure. Click and collect orders are expected to be possible until the 23rd, although this may change depending on the progress of the pandemic.

M&S said it was experiencing delays on deliveries to some cities including Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield and York because of problems caused by the weather.

A note on the retailer’s website said: “Due to adverse weather conditions, we are experiencing disruptions in our carrier services causing delivery delays. We are working closely with our carrier partners to get your order to you as soon as we can.”

The total volume of items being ordered online across the UK for home delivery is currently below expectations according to one major provider, as shoppers are able to visit the high street unlike last November when the UK was in lockdown.

Industry experts are expecting a last-minute flood of parcels as late deliveries of goods at ports finally arrive in warehouses and stores.

“We expect to see a lot of volume roll into the last week in December because of delays in product availability,” said Bobbie Ttooulis, marketing director for Global Freight Solutions, which provides services for online retailers.

With the rise of the Omicron Covid variant potentially prompting more people to order from their laptop, retailers will need every new tactic they can find to ensure deliveries arrive in time for Christmas Day.

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