Ed Turner is Chief Information Officer for Asendia UK – a company that offers logistics and fulfilment capabilities.
Turner tells us more about his role, and explains his views on the biggest operational challenges for today’s online retailers, the impact of AI, and the future of ecommerce fulfilment.
Tell us about your role, and how it fits into the company…
I’m CIO at Asendia UK, a role I cherish. My background is in retail IT and the high points of my career focused on game-changing IT and ecommerce projects for big-name retailers. Now working for a supply chain and fulfilment supplier – with genuine global reach – is hugely rewarding. I’m able to bring Asendia’s vision to life with the newest technology, fantastic teams of people, and amazing facilities around the world. Our obsession is making cross-border ecommerce and mail easy, reliable, and energy-efficient.
Strategically we split projects with a local (UK) versus global (group) focus. Projects that improve how we process parcels would be a global initiative, for example. Any customer-focused activities are generally local, as this is an important focus for us in the UK, and indeed other Asendia subsidiaries, to ensure consistently high focus and ensuring effective customer experience. I’m fortunate to work with a very strong UK IT team. They’re handpicked people with great expertise of our industry and also of the retail/ecommerce sector, where most of our clients sit. My role is key to ensuring the team is strong enough to deliver the projects that support the strategic growth ambitions of Asendia.
I’ve seen every manner of supply chain glitch and seasonal snarl during my working life and it’s now satisfying to be solving problems for the world’s most ambitious retailers – those looking at new horizons, and determined to overcome delivery, compliance, customer service, and security challenges. I’m an avid fan of emerging technologies showing the potential to shape the future of shopping and order fulfilment, but I think of myself as a people person too. The well-being of colleagues – especially after the year we’ve all had – is top of mind in my daily work.
What are the biggest operational challenges for online retailers?
When expanding ecommerce internationally, understanding the local culture and being aware of issues such as popular payment choices, customs, and VAT arrangements and delivery preferences are massive operational hurdles for retailers to overcome. Meeting localised needs requires complex IT, but local knowledge is the vital starting point.
For instance, in France, people are big fans of PUDO delivery; in the Middle East, they still like cash on delivery. In Russia, they have a try before you buy a concept where you can order a dress and only pay once you’ve committed to keeping it. Operating in the way you would for your domestic market won’t wash, and this is what we aim to solve for our clients. As an example, we recently launched a cash-on-delivery service to the Middle East for Boohoo.com, driven by consumer preferences.
To what extent is Asendia investing in automation/AI?
Robotics and automation are revolutionising the ecommerce supply chain we’re constantly told, but the reality is that logistics suppliers working on behalf of multiple retailers have to take a cautious approach. Our belief at Asendia is retailers need flexibility, tightly tailored to demand, which will sometimes put the automation business case into question.
Consumers don’t want bland, standardised packaging which tends to be essential with automation.
Equally, brands want unique elements to their packaging and wider customer offer, and also fresh ideas over time. Human teams may well have the edge on robots when it comes to spotting new opportunities and suggesting better ways of working.
That said, I am interested in Goods to Person (GTP) robotics and follow developments in that area of supply chain tech innovation very closely. At Asendia UK we have an exciting robotic labelling project close to completion and are looking at ways to digitise and automate our label library which has the potential to cut time and cost out of a key fulfilment process for our retail clients. AI is also just coming into use in some areas of the business – watch this space!
What tools or tactics does Asendia use to cope with disruption and unpredictability in the supply chain (e.g. Covid, Brexit)?
Brexit, Covid, and now the new IOSS EU VAT rules and processes have made life incredibly difficult for UK retailers. We’ve adapted our services to be flexible and advisory, so we help retailers get to grips with disruption and the ongoing challenges of cross-border shipping. Helping retailers cope when the unpredictable happens is a massive string to our bow. I’ve seen teams pull out all the stops to keep orders moving – even during the terrible backlogs at ports, and container shortages of the last 18 months.
If there is another Covid wave – or a similar disruption – we’re ready to deploy rapid adaptations of shipping plans on behalf of retail clients. We’ve already started looking at potential alternative providers to shore up the network. Our strength is that we can assist our customers when the unexpected happens. We’ll find alternative routes and use our network of global postal and fulfilment partners to keep volumes moving.
Regarding Brexit, we put workflows and process models in place to facilitate new requirements on behalf of our retail clients, which supported retailers at the start of 2021. There is a sense across the industry that we are dealing with shifting sands though, so we listen carefully, watch the market and adapt to what is needed.
With IOSS, there’s a whole new set of compliance hurdles for retailers to overcome, so we’ve provided special information packs to clients, and there is a wealth of advice on our website.
What is Asendia doing in terms of sustainability practices?
I’m pleased to say, our founding companies, La Poste and Swiss Post, were ahead of their time when focusing on sustainability. We’ve made good progress, but with overseas shipping, the environmental impact is a reality everyone must face up to. While green fuels are in development, we are focusing on offsetting, reducing, and advising our clients, on the best ways to tackle emissions.
Today Asendia offsets all its CO2 emissions for transport within Europe, and from Europe to other continents, excluding first-mile collection and last-mile delivery. Our e-PAQ and Mail services to France and Switzerland are the highlight of our global sustainability offer. In 2020, items that were directly added into the La Poste (direct access) network for delivery were 100% carbon neutral; this was the same in Switzerland for mail items. From 2021, all national parcel products added to the Swiss Post network will also be 100% carbon neutral. That means we offer two fully sustainable services, e-PAQ and Mail, to two major European e-commerce destinations, France and Switzerland.
Carbon reporting is going to be a big challenge for retailers and we’re working on compiling the shipping data sets they are most likely to need to meet any mandatory reporting requirements in the near future. We’re certainly seeing a far higher volume of requests for environmental reporting data than a couple of years ago.
We also want green and sustainability information from our carriers because obviously, we’re not a fully wholly-owned network, so we have different parts of the supply chain to gather information from. There is complexity with international shipping as you have road, air, and sea freight routes to factor in.
My view is that the additional costs of ‘going green’ will come down in the next decade. Electric vehicles will become cheaper and are cheap to run. And with the popularity of pick-up boxes and click and collect, economies of scale are becoming possible, with vehicles dropping off 10 or 20 parcels to a one-stop location as opposed to that number of individual homes. There’s going to be some pressure, longer terms to bring those costs down.
What’s next for ecommerce fulfilment?
Cross-border ecommerce growth will steam ahead post-Covid and post-Brexit. UK retailers can’t afford to lose sight of the EU because, for a lot of retailers, it’s such a key lane for them – sales in France, Germany, Spain, Italy are key for them for growth.
I think social commerce will be massive, requiring retailers to work closely with their 3PLs to cope with unexpected spikes in demand, when influencers recommend products, for instance. Digital content is the new salesperson in retail, and the e-commerce supply chain has to get on board with that with flexible, scalable services to keep pace with hard-to-predict demand. It’s true that ‘demand sensing’ must be mastered, and historic sales data has limited value in the new era of unpredictability.
In the shorter term, and rather ominously, we’re edging towards the first post-Brexit Christmas peak. Anything which is EU-related will be a more complex logistical movement this year. So, the planning retailer have to do will need to involve brokers in the U.K. and Europe so that there are more stops for the trucks, there are more logistics movements. The planning will be a little bit more complicated. Asendia has been doing that kind of planning for years, and we are ready for an additional layer of complexity. We always find new ways of doing things if problems hit – for instance we can charter a flight at short notice or a larger retailer if air freight is short of availability, and we can activate alternative delivery routes at short notice. But even with our vast experience, peak 2021 is going to be interesting!