Last updated: The future of order fulfillment: 4 trends to watch

The future of order fulfillment: 4 trends to watch


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Between supply chain disruption, labor shortages, and an overhaul of consumer shopping habits, the retail landscape has completely transformed in the past couple years. The pandemic has led to new order fulfillment trends that have transformed how we shop, and how businesses run.

Prior to 2020, “supply chain” was far from a household term. Now, it’s shorthand for explaining delays. Before, only a small handful of shops (in my area, mostly grocery stores) offered curbside pickup. Today, even as businesses “return to normal” (whatever that means), it’s become an expected and preferred option offering.

Indeed, retailers have been through the wringer, having to redefine their business models in an ever-changing market. And it seems that there’s no rest for the weary. 2022 is expected to bring its own slew of changes and challenges as shoppers continue to find their footing.

4 order fulfillment trends brands need to prepare for

1. DTC: Not just for DNVBs anymore

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) fulfillment was steadily gaining popularity, especially with the rise of DNVBs (digitally native vertical brands, such as Warby Parker and Amazon). Of course, some big brands like Apple and Nike have gone direct to consumers for ages. But creating a DTC infrastructure can cost a lot upfront – of both time and money. Still, DTC fulfillment saw a big spike after 2020.

Brands that relied on wholesalers and distributors were hit harder by global supply chain issues.

Shipping directly to the consumer reduces the amount of steps where things could go wrong, and helps avoid domino-effect disruptions. It also gives companies more control over the fulfillment experience.

In 2022, DTC is expected to bring in $151.2 billion in sales, a 17% increase from 2021.

2. Fulfillment that’s flexible

How important is it to offer flexible, hybrid fulfillment options these days? Well, let’s just say (in the words of just a few pop culture icons)…

When the customer says:

And retailers respond:

Those customers will soon say:

Order fulfillment trends show an increased emphasis on flexible, omnichannel fulfillment that lets consumers choose how they want to receive their orders. For example:

  • BOPIS (buy online pick up in-store) has been around for years, but saw a huge uptick after the pandemic hit. Customers don’t want to waste their time and energy going to the store only to be met with empty shelves.
  • When it comes to larger, or luxury purchases like furniture, ROPIS (reserve online pick-up in store) is becoming popular. This ensures the item will be in-store and available for the customer to see and test in-person before (thus reducing returns of big-ticket items.)
  • As mentioned earlier, curbside pickup has become a mainstream option customers expect.
  • Having multiple shipping options lets customers choose between cost and convenience, or even sustainability. For example, Amazon frequently includes the option to say, “Ship together in fewer boxes” on a later date, if you’re not in a rush.

You’ll need a unified inventory system to give your customers this level of flexibility and control. But brands that deliver will be rewarded.

3. Personalized, premium shipping delivers a total experience

More and more, brands are treating fulfillment as a part of the total brand experience. And rightfully so. When customers shop online, they don’t get to see and touch their purchases until they unbox them.

Creating a pleasant, easy, branded fulfillment experience can help boost engagement and set you apart from your competition.

What that looks like will depend heavily on your business model and fulfillment strategy. But a great place to start is with order tracking. For online orders, make it easy for customers to access real-time information about product availability, fulfillment status and shipping. Providing this information through your own site (or better yet, sending personalized updates via email or text) keeps customers engaged instead of sending them to a third-party vendor.

(Pro-tip: Real-time data isn’t just for home deliveries! Home Depot’s mobile app, for example, makes it easy to see if an item is in-stock, and locate it in your store – down to the aisle and bin number.)

Some brands are also starting to build shipping profiles for their customers. They collect relevant shopper data (like their name, birthday, loyalty status, shipping preferences, etc.) and then tailor the shipping experience. Imagine ordering something online from your favorite store around your birthday, and receiving a personalized birthday message with a special offer or product sample. It’s a great way to drive loyalty and engagement.

4. Sustainability at the last mile

“Last mile” refers to the final phase of order fulfillment – the last leg of the journey, where the product arrives at the customer’s door.

Inefficiencies at the last mile can account for over 50% of total supply chain spend. So it’s no surprise it’s showing up as a top order fulfillment trend. While plenty could be said about last mile trends, perhaps the most notable is the push towards green logistics.

Consumers are increasingly opting for brands with eco-friendly business models.

Sixty-six percent of consumers consider sustainability when making a purchase, and 34% are willing to pay more for a comparable product if it’s more environmentally friendly.

Retailers, in turn, are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprints. For example:
  • Opting for greener packaging and limiting the amount of “air” in each shipment
  • Investing in electric vans and trucks for deliveries
  • Operating with more local fulfillment

The key to more better order fulfillment? Put your customers first

Order fulfillment is nuanced and complex. With so many moving parts, it’s easy to get lost in the details. But it’s also just one piece of a larger customer experience.

Staying on top of order fulfillment trends can help point you in the right direction, but the No. 1 key to success is keeping your customer in mind every step of the way. Down to the last mile.

Get on the DTC fast track.
Start HERE.

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