Ecommerce has been growing exponentially for a number of years but in 2020, its growth went stratospheric. As lockdown closed shops and forced people around the world to stay confined to their homes, online shopping became not just convenient, but indispensable. Consequently, experts predict that retail ecommerce sales will reach $4.13 trillion by the end of 2020, up from $2.84 trillion in 2018, and that the pandemic has accelerated the shift away from physical to digital shopping by around five years.
While the majority of large retailers already had an established online offering in place, they have undoubtedly been put to the test over the last few months due to unprecedented demand, combined with supply chain and logistics challenges caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile, for smaller retailers who previously relied on physical sales, it has been a fast learning curve to prepare their operations and logistics for a completely different way of doing business.
In this environment, robotic process automation (RPA) can provide huge operational advantages in a number of key business areas.
One of the biggest challenges when setting up an online retail business is dealing with returns. Customers now expect a seamless returns process and a recent survey by comScore revealed that 91% of customers would not shop with a company again if it had a complex or poor return process. However, while highly convenient for the customer, returns involve high costs for businesses. U.S. e-commerce return costs were estimated at $350 billion in 2017, according to Statista’s reports; this figure is forecast to reach $550 billion by 2020.
Businesses must therefore have a frictionless process in place so that returns are optimally managed, from a time, cost and customer experience perspective. As a data-heavy, complex and repetitive process, reverse logistics is the ideal candidate for RPA. By automatically updating stock databases, keeping customers informed on progress and processing refunds, RPA can simultaneously reduce costs, eliminate human error and minimise delays. It can also automatically generate data and reports showing frequency and reasons for returns to help aid decision-making and improve the process in the future.
Besides reverse logistics, RPA can bring benefits to almost all areas within a company, for example:
- RPA-powered ERP (enterprise resource planning) system
An ERP is essentially an RPA system which automates business administration functions such as price changes, billing and employee vacancies, to maximise efficiency and generate reports. For example, by integrating warehouse and Point of Sale (POS) data, an automated ERP ensures that stocks can be replenished as required to maximise sales.
- Accounting and finance
RPA can manage numerous accounting processes, including order and invoice processing, accounts payable and receivable, account reconciliation, consolidation of account information, amongst other tasks.
- Product categorisation
Product categorisation is one of the most important and overlooked functions in the retail industry ensuring that customers can easily find what they’re looking for when browsing and searching on an ecommerce site. Retailers now realise the benefits of integrating RPA to create a proper taxonomy by assigning attributes and categorising products based on custom product mapping rules.
- Supply chain management
RPA can also ensure efficient communication between customers, suppliers, and distributors, including email automation. For example, automated systems can issue alerts to customers and employees updating them on their order status to improve communication and ensure that complaints and claims can be dealt with in a timely manner.
- Demand planning
It is essential for retailers to have detailed data on their sales such as how much of each product has been sold, at what prices and to whom. Thanks to RPA technology, this process can be automated, so that real-time reports can be obtained and analysed as and when required, rather than being complied manually. These reports provide data on the customer's purchasing preferences and the most demanded items, offering the opportunity to predict future behaviour, plan and manage inventory.
- Inventory management
Building on that, RPA can monitor inventory so as to generate notifications when levels are low, and reorder products when levels drop below a certain threshold. In addition, real-time reporting by RPA determines optimal inventory levels based on previous needs and can modify levels based on patterns in customer demand.
RPA not only offers multiple benefits for retail companies, it is also fast, easy and cost-effective to implement, with the ability to integrate with different systems without requiring a complex change management programme. However, to maximise its potential, the focus should be on choosing the right processes to automate, the right automation tools and the right partners to aid with implementation. Unlock the potential of your digital workforce through using RPA for better productivity, lower costs, and a step towards digital transformation.
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