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Omni-Channel Christmas

Have Yourself an Omni-Channel Christmas

It’s beginning to look not so much like Christmas.

By now you’ve probably had more than your fill of articles and news stories about the holiday shopping-and-shipping season, and admittedly MH&L is guiltier than most when it comes to covering every supply chain angle connected to the holidays, from e-commerce to fulfillment to the latest wrinkle in last-mile delivery. We’ve told you why warehouses are getting bigger; how retailers are rolling out every trick in the omni-channel book to make sure they don’t lose any potential sales; what types of predictive technologies consumer goods companies are using to ensure they’re producing the right amount of stuff (and don’t get stuck with too much inventory on December 26); why robots are appearing in more and more DCs; and how logistics companies are enlisting seemingly any vehicle and any breathing creature to deliver goods on time for Christmas.

As the speeds of ordering, fulfillment and delivery have increased, so too has the speed of impatience. Customers have never liked waiting, of course—no doubt some caveman was disgruntled at how long it took for the first wheel to be delivered—but the extent today to which people resent any kind of delay to their immediate gratification is threatening to cast a Scroogelike pall over the whole holiday season.

We all remember the nightmares of just a few Decembers ago, when an unexpected surge in last-minute orders resulted in millions of packages arriving late for Christmas. A headline in one national publication even went so far as to say, “UPS and FedEx Ruined Christmas.” If you remember, it was shortly after that debacle that Amazon (who, truth be told, was as responsible as any company for overpromising delivery capabilities) started hyping the idea of delivering shipments via drone, and nowadays they talk about entire fleets of flying warehouses, sort of the equivalent of a floating aircraft carrier stuffed with smartphones, Star Wars toys and the latest best-sellers.

So I get that keeping products moving, moving, moving is the order of the day, especially during the time of year when the balance sheets of retailers and consumer products manufacturers are at their most vulnerable make-or-break moments. And it explains why the number of same-day deliveries have tripled over the past year, according to consulting firm BRP, and why the number of deliveries through third-party services like Uber and Lyft now account for fully one-third of all retail deliveries. But in the rush to give consumers what they need as quickly as humanly (or robotically) possible, I worry that something is being lost in the process: our decency.

Consider these recent instances of the “we need it and we need it now” syndrome:

• If you have any teenagers in your house, chances are they’ve already dropped a hint or three about hoping to find a new iPhone X under the tree, since it’s said to be the most frequently requested smartphone by teens. Before you trudge on down to the Apple Store to buy one, though, you might want to consider that it might very well have been built by another teenager—one who was perhaps working overtime illegally, at a Foxconn assembly plant in Asia. Apple keeps saying they’re shocked—shocked!—to hear that Foxconn is exploiting its workers, but these stories about Foxconn’s abuses date back quite a few years now. It seems the pressure to produce the new iPhones supersedes Apple’s interest in more closely policing their supply chain.

• A recent undercover expose by The Daily Mirror revealed that life as an order picker in an Amazon UK fulfillment center is somewhat analogous to that of somebody occupying one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno. According to the report, warehouse employees are worked till they drop, and they’re dropping often enough that ambulances appear on-site regularly to treat those who’ve collapsed or succumbed to panic attacks. After the Mirror exposed Amazon’s working conditions, the retail giant reportedly responded by giving employees a couple pieces of candy.

• One of the main reasons why consumers have so passionately embraced the idea of online shopping is because of the crowds associated with brick-and-mortar stores. Even though Cyber Monday this year set a new record for largest U.S. online sales for one day, the usual violence occurred throughout the country on Black Friday. According to the grimly-named, the tally for the past decade is up to 10 deaths, 111 injuries associated with the holiday event.

At the risk of overstating my point, let me close by observing that the word holiday literally means “holy day,” as in a day set aside for worship or reverence. Now, whatever your particular religious beliefs, it seems extremely ironic that a holiday meant to commemorate peace and goodwill, and with making loved ones’ lives a little more merry and bright, is all too often more closely associated with sales and quotas. Let’s all try to keep a true holiday spirit alive by remembering that even in our automated, omni-channel world, every gift-wrapped present is still picked, packed and delivered by real live people.

Season’s greetings, and our best wishes for 2018.


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