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What Is Order Fulfilment Really?

We have explained before about how order fulfilment can be defined in order to answer the question ‘what is order fulfilment‘ and we have even explored ideas about how to improve the order fulfilment process, but this time we thought we’d dive deeper into the different steps that make up the process. We’ll fill you in on what’s involved, who’s responsible for what and what order the different stages of the order fulfilment process occur.

1) Receiving Inventory

Getting the inventory from your suppliers or manufacturers is the first stage of working towards the end goal of ensuring end customers receive the items they order, no matter if you carry out your order fulfilment internally or you prefer to outsource it to a company like us.

As we are an order fulfilment provider, we will focus on what happens when inventory (or stock) arrives at our warehouse:

  • Each item is counted to make sure that the items received align with the number of items ordered from the suppliers or manufacturers
  • Inventory is thoroughly checked to identify if any items have suffered damage in transit from the suppliers or manufacturers to the warehouse
  • SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) are added to the warehouse management system to keep track of the whereabouts, amounts and number of sales of your stock
  • Scannable SKU or barcode labels are applied to all inventory if items didn’t already have them, to help you automatically track the movement of stock
  • Where appropriate, items, such as product samples or promotional items, are kitted at this stage, that is assembled into packages that are prepared for shipping
    • Easyship provide a great explanation of the benefits of kitting on their blog.

      2) Smart Warehouse Storage

      Once inventory is in the fulfilment provider’s possession it goes without saying that it needs to be stored safely and securely in appropriate conditions. For example, we have cleanroom facilities to provide isolated storage for items that require our White Glove Fulfilment services and need advanced hygiene protection.

      It is common practice for each SKU to be allocated a specific storage bin to enable more efficient order processing. Generally, only part of the inventory is stored in bins with overflow storage available in a separate area of the warehouse. Popular items that sell the most (also known as “hot SKUs”) should be positioned in storage containers that are nearest the pick and pack stations to make order fulfilment operations speedier and more reliable. The most popular stock will change, depending on demand and seasonal changes so it will require storage containers to be rearranged occasionally but warehouse management software provides data on when this task needs to be carried out.

      Prolog warehouse

      As inventory moves through the order fulfilment process warehouse management systems make warehouses ‘smarter’ (or at least they should, ours does!) and allow for end-to-end visibility so stock can be tracked from start to finish leaving a clear audit trail and optimising for productivity.

      3) Processing the Order

      So, your fulfilment provider has all your inventory stored safely in their warehouse and logged on their warehouse management system. That means as soon as one of your customers orders something, which is often done online these days, your fulfilment provider can be informed automatically if you have order fulfilment software integrated with your online shop. This allows for total stock management visibility, with visitors to your online shop being able to see how many products you have left in stock and you and your fulfilment provider being able to see the figures too.

      At Prolog, we use a versatile software called Prolog Fusion, which is the foundation for our warehouse infrastructure and can become the adaptable interface for your own fulfilment software offering a fully integrated solution.

      The items within the order are then “picked and packed”, that is they are identified and picked off the shelves or from their storage bins/containers and taken to the order packing station. Here, they undergo a set of stringent quantity control inspections where the optimum type of packaging material is identified (in terms of economic and environmentally friendly value). Ordered items are then scanned to keep the tracking information on warehouse management software up-to-date and sealed as appropriate and sent to the shipping station with the correct paperwork.

      4) At the Shipping Station

      This is where everything else happens that readies the items ordered for delivery and dispatch to the end-customer. Packages are weighed at this point to establish what the most ideal transport method is to get the order to its desired destination. Some orders may be local to the warehouse and only require a short lorry delivery, others may be international deliveries meaning plane and ships become involved, which require their own special documents.

      Operatives who work at the shipping station will inform you, the vendor when the order has been dispatched so you and your customers can track your order until it arrives safely at the target destination. This is where seamless integration and reliable connection between the warehouse management software and your online shop is vital.

      And Back You Go!

      What happens if the order arrives at the desired destination but the customer, for whatever reason, decides they would like to return it?

      When people answer the question of what is order fulfilment, they often neglect to mention that returns processing and management is a huge part of order fulfilment. In reality, returns are often requested. To help sellers facilitate this service, fulfilment providers handle returns on behalf of their clients. For instance, at Prolog we process all returns on the day we receive the return request. This allows for credit card refunds to be processed straight away, helping to maintain customer satisfaction and potentially ensure customer loyalty.

      As an online seller, you should have a publicly available returns policy clearly visible and accessible on your website, so your customers know how to go about returning their unwanted items. You should also have an internal returns policy that your fulfilment provider is aware of, so they know what protocols and procedures you expect them to carry out.

      The above is just a simple outline. In reality, the answer to ‘what is order fulfilment’ is a complex one and the order fulfilment process can be complicated, with different solutions working best for different sellers. Due to this complexity and the amount of technology available to optimise the process, many eCommerce businesses outsource their order fulfilment to a fulfilment provider who has more experience, knowledge, and resources to improve the order fulfilment process.

      If you’re looking to outsource your order fulfilment to make the process more agile, reliable and, efficient accurate, get in touch and we’ll see how we can help.