By Brian Birch, Netrush Chief Operating Officer
Netrush is constantly building supply chain capabilities to meet evolving requirements of e-commerce customers. In 2014 we introduced a wide assortment of products compliant with Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging standard (FFP) in an easy to recycle, branded package that connected customers with brands, highlighting the role that supply chain operations plays in e-commerce customer experience. In 2016 we introduced our proprietary One-Piece-Flow (OPF) processing platform to make e-commerce better, safer, and more reliable. In 2017 we expanded our processing facility in Hebron, Kentucky, enabling us to quickly scale quality. On the operations floor we know we have the last say on product quality, safety, and appearance. We are the producers of that one moment when customers make a connection with products for which brand owners have spent significant upstream resources. Let me put it another way — that team relegated to a distant warehouse outpost with fluorescent lights, recycled air, and surrounded by cycle time data, Pareto charts, histograms, and equipped with tape guns and box cutters — that’s the new customer experience team.
In supply chain operations, sometimes we are pushing up against monumental legacy constraints: the standard shipping label is 9×6 inches so only boxes that size or larger can be efficiently processed in a world where smaller, flatter, lighter is the goal (we are finding ways despite this). However, customers don’t like it when packages arrive overboxed and full of air. But sometimes we have the opportunity to change customer experience in new and innovative ways. Processing e-commerce returns is one of those significant opportunities.
The most critical decision point in a return process is whether or not to put an item back into inventory. For health and personal care products, including anything consumable, the decision for us is easy — we never return units back to inventory even if the box is unopened or the product looks untouched. This has to do with the lack of assurance and transparency about what happened to the product once we’ve injected it into the Amazon system. There is currently no amount of assurance that allows us to do anything other than destroy any product that is returned or any product that could have been sent to a customer at some point after it left our facility.
Hard goods provide a different challenge. Our priority is to inspect products using procedures that meet or exceed brand owner expectations and our own high standards. Our One-Piece-Flow platform allows us to customize returns and inspection procedures for every item. That means our associates can focus on all of the critical elements during inspections that are unique to every product. If an item does not meet those standards, it’s never reinjected into any sales channel.
Apparel and footwear provides the best of all worlds for problem solvers: high return rates and a highly demanding customer expectation that products arrive in pristine condition. Currently, return rates for apparel and footwear are high because that is the best way to mimic the fitting room experience of trying on multiple items and sizes and choosing only one, or none. There are some promising technologies on the horizon to help e-commerce customers with sizing and fit, but for now and into the foreseeable future we need to address this. Here’s what’s innovative: Think of buying a pair of new shoes at a local store. Because there is some degree of variation in size from brand to brand, you might end up trying a few pairs before swiping your credit card. Or you might go into the dressing room with five shirts, knowing that you plan to leave with only one. How much quality control goes into repackaging the shoes, shirts, or jeans that get tried on before going back to the shelves? We’re not suggesting the answer is none — only that a solid returns process has to be clearly defined that includes:
1) A visual aid (what brand-new soles, logos, and stitching look like on a brand-new product)
2) Having examples on hand that you can directly compare, to know that it’s the right item and that it’s in the brand owner’s desired condition
3) A final stop and checkpoint before any product is reinjected or repurposed
At Netrush we must always be ready to kick out any product from our system if it does not meet strict criteria. We put control in the hands of brand owners when we inspect every returned item using criteria that maximizes customer experience. We know that when we operate by those standards, our e-commerce returns process should far exceed quality controls used in any channel.
Netrush Ops Summit
This month, we’ll be hosting an Operations Summit at our new processing facility in Hebron, Kentucky. The event brings a selection of our partners together for a deep dive into our shared operational practices with the goal of identifying new ways that supply chain operations can positively influence customer experience.