Logistics in Reverse

According to findings reported by the BBC last month, nearly two thirds of customers who bought clothes online in the last six months, returned at least one item. Other reports outside of fashion indicate that more than half of consumers have returned a least one item that they purchased online in the last six months.

While much focus has been given to the financial implications on retailers, we take a look at the strains that the returns process has on the supply chain and talk to Mike Doyle, Country Manager UK&I at Datalogic, to find out what technologies are available to alleviate some of the pressure.

The bad news for most retailers is that if they want to remain competitive, they don’t have a lot of choice except to adapt their supply chain to deal with the increasing number of returns generated by e-commerce. There is good news however, as technology and particularly mobile computing and barcode scanning, offers a number of ways to help address this growing challenge.

The latest advancements in imaging technology offer a number of benefits that can be leveraged to manage inbound returns. We have already seen wider adoption of 2D imagers at the point of sale, largely driven by mobile couponing and loyalty schemes, but the advantages that this technology offers beyond the store are even greater.

For starters, 2D barcode symbologies such as data matrix codes allow vast amounts of information to be stored within them. Returns labels and paperwork printed with these codes can contain information such as the date that the product was originally shipped. Using rugged cordless imagers like the Datalogic PowerScan or a rugged mobile computer, workers can quickly establish if an item has been returned within the time allowed by the company’s returns policy. At the same time it could also contain data about the item’s location within the warehouse or distribution centre so that it can be quickly and accurately rotated back into stock.

For damaged or faulty goods, camera functions embedded within devices enable users to capture images of the item, which can be transferred in real time via the wireless network to back office systems. In the instance of faulty goods these images can be invaluable for retailers that need to escalate problems to the manufacturer or supplier. The camera function can also be used to capture images of any paperwork that is sent with the returned item, eliminating the need for separate document scanners and helping to maintain an accurate audit trail. For multi-channel organisations, where returns may be processed in store, similar principles and technologies can be utilised to help manage the return of items back into the supply chain, whether they are retained in store and sold or forwarded onto a distribution centre.

There is also potential to automate some of the reverse logistics process. For example we could start to see RFID technology have more prevalence for its ability to assist with apparel returns. Meanwhile, warehousing and logistics supplier Simon Loos in the Netherlands has realised a 50% cost saving by using the Datalogic Jade X7 portal scanner to process returns of pre-stocked promotional displays. In addition to reading barcodes, advanced sensors integrated within the Jade system measure the speed, shape and position of the items. Then software inside the device uses the data captured to help identify the product and can even indicate if items are stacked on top of one another. Some of these same advanced sensors and imagers are integrated in Datalogic’s Industrial Automation solutions which could also be leveraged to take automation of the returns process to another level.

Voice technology also has a potential role to play. Paired with a mobile computer like the Skorpio X3 with a display, scanner and a keyboard rather than just a black box unlocks more functionality for users and makes it even easier to confirm the location that items should be returned to.

Outside the four walls, mobile devices can also be used to streamline processes and provide the retailer and customer with additional visibility of returns. Rugged PDA devices such as Datalogic’s new DL-Axist device could be put into the hands of couriers, enabling them to scan items at the point of collection and even take pictures and obtain a signature from the customer to confirm receipt. Return merchandise authorisation forms confirming the reason for a return could also be completed at the doorstep and the data transferred in real time, reducing the workload imposed on the distribution centre.

While many retailers may feel nervous about the implications that returns could have on their supply chain and ultimately, their operating costs, there are many ways that technology can assist. What remains is for organisations to work with manufacturers like Datalogic and their IT partners to find the best solutions to meet their individual requirements.