Unsung heroes of ecommerce

These faceless foot soldiers are a crucial cog in the wheel of ecommerce process

It’s 7.30 in the evening, and there’s a nip in the air, a sign of the onset of winter. For thousands of office-goers commuting between Gurgaon and Delhi, it’s a harrowing time because of peak traffic. For Sahil Bansal too, it’s a challenging time, but for a different reason. The chief executive officer at DCG Tech, a packaging solutions company, is supervising some manic packaging activity being done by hundreds of his employees at a huge DTDC fulfillment centre, spread over 42,000 square feet, in Rajokri.

“Depending on the size and the kind of packaging used, it can take between 5 and 15 minutes to pack a box,” says Bansal, tension clearly visible on his face. In the runup to Diwali, their workload has seen a massive jump.

“Packaging demand for ecommerce orders is 1:1,” he says, adding that as orders increase during Diwali, packaging also increases in the same proportion. DCG Tech claims to handle over 20,000 customers, including the likes of Naaptol, Amazon, Flipkart, Jabong, Voonik and Paytm. “Almost every single ecommerce order requires re-packaging,” he says. One has to ensure that boxes are packed quickly and efficiently, he adds. One has to decide whether the product calls for box or pouch, tape or sticker, bubble wrap or shrink wrap.

Bansal and his team are just some of the many faceless foot soldiers at the back end, whom consumers will never get to see or know when they get their gift boxes delivered at their doorstep.

But they are crucial cogs in the wheel of the ecommerce process that starts when an order is placed and ends when the product is delivered.

unsung heroes of ecommerce

There’s plenty that happens between those two points. From processing the order, sorting the right product hub and delivery channel to finally getting the product moving to the consumer, an unseen army of workhorses is doing their job, hidden behind their desks or under those big bags of delivery.

“You wouldn’t notice it when you place the order on an app or a website but the real rush begins after your order is placed,” says Joginder Chhabra, retail analyst and head of market and consumer insights at LG Electronics India. The people behind the delivery process form the backbone that makes ecommerce possible, he adds.

The entire process, explains Chhabra, can be broadly divided into three parts: the first mile, which consists of movement of the gift from the seller or source to the origin hub where all the parcels are collected; the middle mile is the items moving from origin hub to destination hub; and the last mile is the delivery of the item from the destination hub to the consumer.

From Warehouse to House

Vineet-Baid-CEO-Cofounder-Falcon-AutotechVineet Baid, CEO and Co-founder of Falcon Autotech, an industrial automation solution company, comes into the picture once the goods reach the origin hub. From sorting packs and checking dimensions to scanning weight and managing conveyor and packaging automation, Falcon’s automation solutions help ecommerce companies in improving efficiency and saving time, claims 33-year-old Baid, who has Snapdeal, Amazon, Blue Dart, Delhivery and Mahindra among his top clients The process of sorting the packs is not as easy as it looks or sounds. Before zeroing in on a solution for a client, explains Baid, it’s crucial to understand a few things at the facility: load pattern, types of bar code, size of parcels, space available, peak handling requirements and network setup. Once all these are factored in, the technical team enters.

Baid explains how automation helps, especially during the festive season. Delhivery, a Falcon client, reportedly processes 45,000-55,000 orders a day during non-sale season. But when the sale is on, the number nearly doubles. Processing a shipment as quickly as possible helps to decongest processing centres and achieve maximum network connections, he says. “We have had over 700 robotic installations during last five years.”

But how difficult is it for automation to find wide-scale acceptance in India, given that even Amazon has not completely automated packaging for e-commerce in the US? Automation becomes all the more challenging if one takes into account millions of products of varying shapes and sizes that are shipped every day.

Baid sounds confident. Automation, he contends, will find acceptance in India not only for the e-commerce ecosystem but also other industry verticals such as retail, automotive, FMCG and pharma. There is a greater likelihood of operational errors during peak periods such as festive seasons due to the pressure buildup, overworked manpower and the sheer scale, but with automation in place, the machine can help handle peak season much more easily and accurately with marginal additional manpower. “Automation industry will be a $350-500 million market in India by 2020,” he says, adding that Falcon has started exporting its entry level products to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China, and is gearing up for its maiden international robotic installation in Dubai. Technology, he lets on, will shape the way goods are delivered in India.

Sahil Bansal CEO DCG TechInvestors, globally as well as in India, are betting big on companies using technology to ease the pain of ecommerce delivery. The consumer internet world, says Dheeraj Jain, managing partner at London-based investment firm Redcliffe Capital, is being disrupted by companies that are offering real-time visibility — be they social networks where people are obsessed about each other’s whereabouts or Uber where people want to see the location of cabs on a map. “The logistics industry is seeing a similar disruption where consumers purchasing goods online are demanding real-time visibility on the whereabouts of their goods,” he says. They need real-time information and notifications about their order.

Shipsy, a tech-enabled, on-demand logistics service provider, is one such startup that’s helping ecommerce companies in all the three stages of delivery by providing location intelligence, optimisation of last mile delivery and planning of supply chain. For instance, whether a demand can be serviced or not is usually determined on the basis of the pincode. But it becomes a problem when a particular pincode covers a large location; an example is Gurgaon which has just one pincode covering almost all of the city.

Shipsy enables logistics companies via an app and dashboard to define their service areas by using polygons on a map, says Soham Chokshi, co-founder of Shipsy, which counts DTDC Express, Dot Zot and Web Express among its clients. The clients mark and tag all parts of India with polygons on a map so as to get full visibility on the exact location they can service and how long it would take. “This saves them the trouble of accepting a parcel that they cannot deliver,” says Chokshi.

Once the service area to be delivered is identified, Shipsy helps with the sorting and bagging processes at the origin hub. Based on over 20 parameters analysed through a data algorithm, the startup suggests the best route to send the boxes. It could be a direct flight or a combination of air and road. While it figures out flight prices and load requirements for direct flights, Shipsy also has the technology to predict delivery estimates based on driver behaviour and other variables, claims Chokshi.

Once the parcel reaches the destination hub, the next step is to figure out the best and most efficient way to distribute parcels among delivery boys. Field executives have an app with which they can mark deliveries in real time.

Soham chokshi cofounder ShipsyRoute optimisation algorithms help executives in taking the most optimal route. The app also works seamlessly offline as well, which helps in places with patchy internet connection. The allocation of parcels to delivery boys is based on their location, saving the trouble of manual allotment. “Shipsy also provides technology to prevent fraud deliveries,” says Chokshi.

The technology used, he claims, is similar to what is used by Uber to spot fake driver updates. In spite of the technological advancements, companies still have to grapple with a fair share of challenges. The biggest, says Chokshi, is that apps don’t function offline.

Because of unreliable cellular networks in various locations across India, validation of transactions becomes tough. When offline transactions are synced with the central server, filtering of incorrect transactions becomes a massive challenge.

However, he is quick to add that what makes the job satisfying is the smile on the face of the consumer when she gets the product.

Of course that’s only if she gets the product she ordered: in good shape and at the right time.

Note: Article By Rajiv Singh Featuring Falcon Autotech was Originally Published in Economic Times (ET), Oct 30, 2016