Agility is key in the Covid era and UK health and beauty retailer, Boots UK, has been able to rapidly adapt to an online model through improvements to its packaging processes.
Boots is the UK’s largest pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer with more than 2,500 stores in the UK, ranging from community pharmacies to large destination health and beauty stores. Over its 171 year history, the business has experienced phenomenal growth and now, with 15.8 million active Boots Advantage Card members, the business supports a vast customer base across its omni-channel operations.
Boots.com is a fast-expanding part of the business, supported by an advanced ecommerce fulfilment centre in Burton. Preparing online orders for home delivery or in-store collection demands highly efficient order picking and packing processes. Critically, during peak these systems must be flexible and agile enough to cope with a huge increase in order volumes, and this can place a great strain on the packing area, where manual labour is traditionally increased during peak to cope with demand.
Tracey Clements, COO for Boots in the UK and Ireland, says: “As consumers are spending more time online, we are seeing tremendous year-on-year growth on Boots.com and to meet the growth of online sales and customer expectations, we had to innovate the way that our supply chain works, and the answer was automation.”
The dual challenge
Faced with the dual challenge of recruiting more and more people every autumn for peak season and a shrinking pool of available labour, in 2019 the business decided to look at the potential to boost productivity by increasing the level of automation used in the packing operation. A simple mechanise packaging system was in use for the majority of off-peak orders, but the system did not offer the flexibility or capacity needed for Black Friday and peak season. In addition, a large number of manual packing benches were necessary to fulfil the volume of orders received during the peak season – a major financial and administrative commitment.
Ian Murfin, Customer Relationship Manager at Boots, explains: “In order to support the fast growth in online sales, we wanted a solution that would increase efficiency, boost capacity and enhance the productivity of our labour force. We realised packaging technology had become much more sophisticated, offering far greater performance, speed, accuracy and importantly, reliability. And that’s exactly what we needed to increase capacity.”
High-velocity, fit-to-size packing innovation
After a review of the latest packaging technology available, Boots took the decision to invest in two state-of-the-art automated packing machines from Quadient that tailor-make parcels at high-speed. Quadient’s CVP Impack is unique in that it has the potential to construct bespoke individual cardboard boxes to the exact size of an ordered item at the rate of up to of 500 boxes per hour – combining multiple items, as required.
The CVP Impack measures, constructs, tapes, weighs and labels each parcel in one seamless process. The operator simply places the item(s) to be packed onto the machine and scans the order. The system identifies the order and automatically conveys the items to a 3D scanner to measure and calculate the minimum box size required. The cardboard is then cut and folded to create a snug fit around the goods and tape is applied on just two sides to secure the box. Then an in-line scale checks the weight against the order and, finally, the box is automatically conveyed to a label printer where a carrier compliant label is created and applied. The whole process, from start to finish, takes just thirty seconds with a custom made box configured every seven seconds.
Adam Coventry, Head of Warehousing for Boots.com, comments: “At our Dot Com warehouse we have created a hi-tech and fully automated operation for goods in and out. We have the safety of our colleagues, efficiency, and sustainability at the core of what we do. Every year we pick, pack and ship over 43 million products to our customers.
“Once the items have been picked by the cobots they arrive at our CVP Impack packaging solution – the latest addition to our high tech warehouse operations. This has genuinely revolutionised the packaging process for Boots.com, reducing the need for extra packing stations and increasing the items packed to up to 500 items an hour per machine, helping us to meet the high demand for online orders.” He adds: “We are able to use 100% recycled Boots branded cardboard and no longer need to use any additional filler material.”
The installation of the two CVP Impack machines took place in late September 2019, just in time for the Black Friday season, and both machines were designed for dual operator feed, the first to be supplied to the UK market. Having two operators per machine facilitates a seamless and continuous flow of orders, from order-totes arriving, to complete, perfectly sized packages, weighed and labelled, ready for despatch.
“We were impressed by the speed and efficiency with which the two Quadient machines performed over the Black Friday peak,” says Murfin. “The CVP Impack machines have delivered significant cost and environmental benefits too, with reduced material use and volume savings on transport.”
In fact, following the installation of the two machines, Boots has also been able to reduce the transport journeys – a significant cost saving and environmental benefit. The business is also expecting to buy around 30% less cardboard for the same volume of packages produced by the pre-existing system.
There are important customer benefits too. By creating custom sized packaging for each order, the customer receives a compact, right-sized box, which is more convenient to carry, eliminates ‘consumer distress’ over wasteful packaging and delivers a positive environmental message. A further advantage of the fit-to-size cardboard packaging is a snug fit to the product, which prevents items moving around, providing better protection without the need for bubble-wrap or void-fill.
However, perhaps the most unforeseen benefit of the investment in Quadient technology has been Boots’ ability to respond efficiently to the sudden demands placed upon the business through the boom in online orders following the Coronavirus lockdown.
“With a surge in ecommerce orders, up 100% since the lockdown, and a dramatic change in order profiles, the agility and speed with which the CVP Impack machines can create individually-made packs have proved their worth in abundance,” says Ian Murfin. “And critically, this unexpected challenge has been met without needing to scale up the operation, which would have been extremely difficult at this time, with all the complications of social distancing.”
He adds, “The core driver for this investment was increased operational efficiency – and we certainly achieved our goal.”
Clements, concludes: “The customer experience is extremely important to Boots, so as we continue to see high demands online, we know that packing automation is not only supporting our supply chain but also ensuring that we can continue to meet the needs of all our customers so they receive the same care outside our stores as they do within.”