If you’re used to taking a hands-on approach to every part of running your e-commerce business, automation may sound a little impersonal – maybe even intimidating. After all, you’re relinquishing the control you’re used to having to a machine, and that can be scary.
Fears and hesitations aside, you can’t scale a business if every task is completed manually. Sooner or later, you’ll be dedicating so much time to the little things that you simply won’t have the manpower or resources to worry about expanding your operations.
Ultimately, if you want to grow your online store, you have to embrace e-commerce automation.
Automating inventory management
Automation can be really helpful for a business because it leaves less room for human error. One of the first things to automate should be your inventory management.
Manually tracking inventory with a spreadsheet is cumbersome and, frankly, a bit risky. Any situation involving non-automated data entry comes with ample opportunity for mistakes. Imagine this: your employee accidentally marks a set of products as out of stock. Those items will sit on a shelf collecting dust while your customers are forced to buy from a competitor. It can go the other way, too. A team member accidentally enters “100” instead of “10” in the quantity field. What will you do if you don’t discover the error until 50 shoppers have placed an order for that product?
Even if by some miracle you have employees who never make mistakes, manual inventory management is still remarkably inefficient. As you expand your business, the amount of time you waste will only increase.
Even if you’re only selling on one channel, you still have to:
- Log into that channel
- Download order details and inventory information
- Update either:
a) several different spreadsheets, or;
b) a single, unwieldy spreadsheet
And if you’re selling on multiple channels, the processes will take even more time to complete. When you’re using an employee, or multiple employees, to complete the necessary processes, that’s a lot of time and money lost.
An automated inventory management solution can integrate with your selling channels and your order management and fulfillment software. All your systems will share the same information with no manual data entry required. Inventory management software ensures accurate inventory counts and gives your employees more time to work on other tasks.
Automating shipping and fulfillment
It’s safe to say a decent number of your orders will have similar attributes. For example, they could:
- Weigh the same amount
- Have the same dimensions
- Use the same package type
- Dispatch from the same warehouse
- Ship via the same carrier
E-commerce automation makes it unnecessary to manually configure the settings for every single order when there’s a ton of overlap.
Robust shipping software usually offer a few different ways for merchants to automate their shipping and fulfillment. The options you choose will depend on the level of automation you want to implement. Here are three examples.
1. Shipping presets
Shipping presets allow merchants to assign the same parameters to several orders simultaneously. Retailers can create a shipping preset that automatically updates specifications like the following:
- Carrier and service
- Package type
- Ship from location
- Delivery confirmation
When it comes to determining your presets, start by choosing a set of criteria that you regularly apply to certain types of orders such as:
- Package type = padded envelope
- Ship from location = Toronto
- Carrier = Canada Post
Then, select all the appropriate shipments and apply the shipping preset. All your orders will update simultaneously.
2. Service mapping
Service mappings automate the process of assigning a carrier and service to new orders. When an order is imported into the shipping software, the carrier and service are automatically selected based on the delivery option the shopper chose at checkout.
If you use Canada Post for next-day delivery, you’d create a service mapping that connects the “next-day delivery” option on your selling channel(s) to “Canada Post Priority™”. Once an order for next-day delivery is imported into your shipping software, the shipping service will automatically be set as Canada Post Priority. Service mappings allow you to meet customer needs and use the shipping and delivery options that are most beneficial for your business.
3. Automation rules
While shipping presets let you automatically apply the same settings to multiple orders at once, your warehouse employee must still select the orders manually. And despite the fact that it’s totally automated after setup, service mapping only involves carrier and service. If you want to designate additional shipment specifications and apply those automatically, you’ll need to use shipping automation rules.
Shipping automation rules are customizable, hierarchical sets of criteria and actions that automatically assign chosen shipping parameters to imported orders. Think of them as “If this, then that” equations.
When shipping automation rules are applied, an order that arrives in your shipping software will include all of the necessary shipping and delivery settings. As a result, you can just jump ahead to the next step in the fulfillment process, saving a lot of time.
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Choosing what to automate
When you’re ready to implement e-commerce automation, the first step is to decide which processes you want to automate.
You should never automate every part of your business. Some tasks still require a human touch. To make sure you’re automating the right things, follow these guidelines:
- Create an outline of the smaller tasks you and your staff complete on a daily and/or weekly basis.
- Identify which of these tasks are the most repetitive.
- Isolate the tasks that take a lot of time to complete, but don’t require much thought. (Essentially, these are the tasks an employee could complete on auto-pilot.)
- Determine which tasks are best suited for automation. Remember: not every daily or weekly duty is a good candidate for automation.
- Choose the tasks that, if automated, will have the biggest impact on operational efficiency.
- Select the most appropriate automation method for what you want to achieve.
Give automation a try
Getting started with automation requires a decent amount of work upfront. It can be difficult to adapt to new processes when you’ve been running your business the same way for a while. But once everything’s in place, e-commerce automation will save you considerable time and money and, ultimately, make your life easier. You just need to take that first step.
Callie Hinman is the Content Marketer & Writer at ShipStation, a leading provider of shipping software for e-commerce fulfillment. Callie is a proud graduate of the University of Texas and is staunchly committed to following Ann Handley’s Rule of FIWTSBS (“Find Interesting Ways to Say Boring Stuff”).
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