“Big and bulky” products add complexity to omnichannel distribution and last-mile strategies

  • December 04, 2018
Person delivering the Washing Machine

It’s no surprise that ecommerce shipments are an increasing part of the distribution activities for business-to-consumer (B2C) manufacturers and retailers. However, for many companies, the large number of big, bulky, dense, fragile and high-value products that often require less-than-truckload (LTL) instead of parcel service adds a surprising level of complexity. And, as they become more commonplace for online purchase and delivery, your last-mile strategy must also create a positive customer experience for these diverse product categories.

Unfortunately, the lack of structure for special LTL services makes it difficult to “delight your” customers consistently. If left unmanaged, last-mile execution can be the weakest link in the delivery experience. It’s particularly true for big and bulky products with a packaging design that may not account for certain last-mile hazards. Designing and implementing flawless last-mile services should be one of your highest priorities. A delivery can literally determine whether a customer will consider additional purchases and pass on positive referrals.

Some manufacturers leave last-mile strategies to their retail partners. But those partners often rely on price-driven, third-party delivery partners without any set guidelines or agreed-upon service levels. In this scenario, the manufacturer loses control over the transaction’s final impression the moment the trailer pulls away from the dock. Despite this reality, they're ultimately still responsible for customer satisfaction.

With this in mind, we want to highlight some industry gaps and concerns regarding the lack of LTL last-mile delivery solution standardization. We created this list after in-depth discussions with clients, colleagues and industry partners.

Carrier management. Whether you’re a direct-to-consumer manufacturer or an online retailer, you need to determine how tightly to manage your LTL last-mile delivery services. Is it possible to influence or ultimately control the last-mile delivery quality of your products? Should you require certain handling tools or capabilities from your partners? If so, consider specifying your own fleet of trusted carriers or established partners. Another option is developing and documenting standards for various delivery service levels that you can hand off to your retail partners. A broader approach may be to influence an industry solution that would tier delivery services and hold delivery agents accountable to service-level certifications and compliance.

Distribution packaging. Without a clear definition of the handling methods every stage of the transport journey (including the last mile) uses, it's harder to protect large, fragile products. The result is often product damage. An effective packaging system is designed for the environment through which it travels. Leaving this last step undefined ties the hands of packaging engineers. It prevents them from implementing the appropriate designs for a dynamic supply chain. As brand owners, you can help define requirements for last-mile deliveries. That way, product packaging will provide the protection your product requires. Given the many touchpoints that occur at the final moments of delivery, developing appropriate packaging is a crucial step in any omnichannel strategy.

Carrier qualifications. Determining standards for a delivery partner can be difficult because many organizations base this decision mostly on price. However, when you choose delivery partners, there must be more to your assessment than “cheapest” and “fastest.” Your organization should feel comfortable establishing guidelines and evaluating your partners’ handling techniques and cleanliness standards when delivering your product either to the doorstep or within the home of your customer.

For higher-value items, it may be helpful to gather direct feedback from your customers through your carrier partners. It should include information on the product’s packaging and the supply chain hazards present at the final location. This is an opportunity for your delivery partners to help you validate whether products arrive on time — damage free — and if they’re placed in the customer’s specified location. Such metrics can create accountability and help boost the effectiveness of your intended last-mile services. Working with delivery partners who follow strict guidelines and sue the proper systems can help alleviate concerns and improve your customer satisfaction levels.

Carrier transparency. Some organizations achieve greater success in their partnerships by being transparent with their customers about their delivery providers. By providing background and contact information for your delivery partners in advance, your customers gain “peace of mind.” This results in trust and loyalty. However, depending on the size of your organization and the competitive disadvantage that may result from revealing too much about your delivery partners, you should carefully evaluate the potential outcomes associated with this strategy.

Juggling multiple carrier partnerships. When it comes to carrier providers, less is often more. However, if you can establish consistent handling guidelines, service expectations and availability, it may be beneficial to work with a wider range of carrier partners. Unfortunately, maintaining this consistency may be challenging if you have too many partnerships. The largest factor to consider when determining the ideal number of carriers may be the overall impact on your supply chain efficiency.

Building an advanced packaging strategy around your LTL last-mile delivery experience remains as important as your carrier selection and management process. Communicating with your customers and delivery partners — before, during and after delivery — can help determine how to formulate the most appropriate packaging for your product. The key to determining the best method is to remember that this challenge isn’t siloed. It isn’t a “transportation problem” or a “packaging problem.” It requires input from multiple supply chain functions.

— By Bryan Wyatt

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