Do you sell clothes online? If yes, you are probably familiar with the importance of timely customer fulfillment and satisfaction. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about apparel order fulfillment – the set of ecommerce operations concerned with preparing and fulfilling your customer orders.
From understanding what it is, to addressing some common fulfillment challenges affecting fashion vendors and understanding tips for improving your fulfillment operations, we’ve got it all covered. Whether you’re just getting started as an apparel company or looking to streamline your fulfillment process, continue reading because this post is for you!
What Does Apparel Fulfillment Mean?
Apparel fulfillment in ecommerce refers to the separate processes of (1) receiving and (2) storing apparel inventory, (3) processing, (4) picking (locating), and (5) packing (packaging) orders, and (6) shipping products to their buyers. It also involves (7) returns management – the handling of products customers send back, typically because they are defective or incorrect.
Apparel fulfillment is a core aspect of your clothing business operations that directly affects customer satisfaction. So optimizing each stage of the process is important. Doing so results in more satisfied customers. And the more your clothing business can satisfy its customers, the greater chances you have of gaining new customers and converting first-time shoppers into recurring ones.
How Do Apparel/Clothing Fulfillment Centers Operate?
First of all, an apparel or clothing fulfillment center is a storage location, usually an office facility or warehouse, that is dedicated to the seven stages of order fulfillment. In this section, we’ll explain what those operations entail during each stage:
Receiving inventory from a manufacturer or supplier is the first step of the order fulfillment process.
During the receiving stage, your warehouse operators identify, number, and record all the goods arriving as stock. This identification process is mostly done in bulk by scanning unique codes printed on the pallets containing the products or reading the supplier labels.
However, small operations that tend to receive multiple individual packages within a box will find the individual apparel items inside labeled or barcoded differently.
To keep track of them, you will assign each item, including its color and size variations, an SKU (stock-keeping unit). An SKU in ecommerce is an identification code on product labels that companies use to retrieve products within their inventories and track the details, movement, and sales of those specific goods.
2. Inventory Storage
Once products are received, they are kept in a warehouse or storage facility until orders are ready to be fulfilled. This stage is called inventory storage.
It is worth mentioning that as much as inventory storage involves having the space to house goods, it also involves maintaining the proper storage conditions to preserve the quality of goods and executing optimal warehouse management so finding and packaging products, later on, is hassle-free.
3. Order Processing
Order processing is the stage of preparing a customer’s order for fulfillment. You can integrate order management software into your online store to automatically process orders and dictate the picking and packing activities required to satisfy an order.
This is one of the most important parts of the fulfillment process because how quickly and accurately you process orders affects pick time, pack time, and shipping time.
4. Picking Items
In the picking stage, automated warehouse robots or a picking team locate items according to order instructions, typically from packing slips that contain information like the product’s SKU, sizes, colors, warehouse location, etc.
An important metric in the picking process is your business’s pick time – the duration it takes to locate and pick an item from your inventory. You can optimize your pick time in several ways, including storing commonly purchased items together and using batch picking to efficiently fulfill multiple orders at the same time.
A necessary step that’s often ignored during the picking phase is auditing. Auditing is the process of validating picked products and is necessary for confirming the accuracy of orders before they are packed and shipped. Often, auditing is done by scanning the order against the picked products’ SKUs to ensure they match.
5. Packing Orders
Packing is the process of packaging orders before they can be shipped. Depending on the material’s durability, some types of clothing may need extra packaging to prevent them from getting ruined.
For example, while lighter materials that are common like cotton or silk can do with regular packaging, a leather jacket will need thicker packaging due to its weight. Careful and effective packing is also necessary to prevent damaged products and dissatisfied customers. To discover more about apparel packing best practices, you can use this guide.
After being packaged and cleared to ship, ready-to-fulfill goods are sent to their buyers. During this stage, it’s best practice to provide shoppers with accurate delivery timelines, so they know when to expect their orders and order tracking codes so they can know the whereabouts of their purchases at any given time.
What do customers do when they aren’t satisfied with their purchases? They return them. Order returns happen for different reasons. The order could be damaged or defective. It could be an incorrect order. Or, in the case of a store that sells clothes and apparel, it could simply be a wrong fit.
Returns management is mainly concerned with addressing returns promptly to keep your customers happy. But it also involves the careful and thorough quality examinations you must carry out to determine whether or not returned products are acceptable enough to be restocked or sent back to suppliers, or whether they’re too damaged and need to be discarded.
Want to learn more about optimizing the stages of your fulfillment operations? Check out our guide to the seven steps of order fulfillment.
What Are Some Common Apparel Fulfillment Challenges?
Order fulfillment for apparel and clothing brands comes with its own set of unique challenges. From managing a large number of SKUs to handling returns and inventory management, order fulfillment requires strategic solutions. In this part, we’ll look at some common challenges that apparel businesses face and how to overcome them. Let’s begin:
1. High SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) Counts
Apparel stores tend to deal with hundreds, if not thousands, of SKUs for the many variations of products they offer. With such a wide range of items to manage, handling business inventory and logistics becomes complicated. Additionally, managing high SKU counts requires ample storage space and optimized processes to maintain order and avoid overcrowding of your fulfillment facility.
To lessen these challenges, you can arrange products by order of demand and plan your warehouse layout with product availability and sufficient moving space in mind. Also use inventory management software and data-enabled demand forecasting tools to track your inventory details and anticipate the most performing and underperforming products to replenish or avoid at any given time.
2. High Returns Rate
The average returns rate in the fashion ecommerce industry is between twenty to thirty percent, according to Coresight Research. For fashion vendors that will have to inspect, restock, or discard the returned items (incurring costs), this is not positive news.
You can improve your returns rate by using comprehensive product descriptions and large, high-quality product photos that display sizing and quality in great detail.
You can also share customer reviews on sizing and quality to show transparency and help customers make better informed purchases.
Also consider using our intelligent ERP system to track your inventory numbers, oversee sales activities, efficiently manage returns, and make your whole fulfillment process easy and efficient.
3. Poor Inventory Management
Poor inventory management is a common mistake that costs ecommerce vendors a lot of time, money, and labor. The ineffective organization of products within the storage facility makes picking and packing later on inefficient.
Inaccurate stock levels can also lead to stockouts or overstocking, causing lost sales or excessive warehousing costs.
By using the right inventory management systems, carrying out regular inventory audits, and optimizing your fulfillment center’s receiving process, you can overcome some of the challenges posed by poor inventory management, ultimately ensuring the right products are available at the right time.
4. Poor Customer Service
You need a professional customer service team to promptly address shopper issues like missing, delayed, or defective orders. When your business fails to solve such problems quickly, you’ll create dissatisfied customers who may decide to choose your competition next time in search of a better experience.
It’s wise to hire a dedicated customer service team as soon as your clothing business grows to the point where handling customer queries becomes challenging.
In the meantime, consider integrating AI assistants on your website to handle basic customer inquiries. By proactively managing customer concerns, you can maintain customer satisfaction, building trust and loyalty as your business grows.
How Can I Improve My Apparel Fulfillment Process?
There are many ways to improve your apparel fulfillment operations, including:
1. Choosing Warehouse Locations Carefully
Warehouse placement has a huge role in the efficiency of apparel order fulfillment. When choosing a warehouse, consider factors like the facility’s proximity (closeness) to target markets, transportation infrastructure, and labor availability.
For example, if your customers are mainly in the United States or the United Kingdom, you can choose the nearest local warehouse to ship.
By strategically choosing warehouse locations, your apparel company can significantly reduce shipping costs, minimize delivery times, and improve customer satisfaction.
2. Offering Order Tracking
By enabling customers to track their orders, your business grants customers the ability to monitor shipping progress and know the whereabouts of their orders. Such transparency goes a long way in improving customers’ perceptions of your business.
What’s more, order tracking implementation not only reduces the number of shipping-related customer support queries but also reduces the likelihood of order theft and increases customer satisfaction.
3. Accurate Demand Forecasting
Accurate demand forecasting is important for improving apparel order fulfillment. By analyzing historical sales data, market trends, and external factors, AI algorithms can now predict future demand fairly accurately.
These technological advancements enable better inventory planning, minimizing the risks of stockouts or overstocking.
4. Automating Tasks With Technology
Integrating order and warehouse management systems in your everyday fulfillment operations will help streamline your brand’s picking and packing processes, reduce errors, and improve overall fulfillment efficiency.
Other technologies like SKU barcode scanning and automated picking and packing systems can help you streamline your order processing.
In addition, using inventory management software with sales channels optimizes stock control and ensures accurate product availability.
By embracing technology, your apparel business can minimize manual tasks, improve accuracy, and enhance the speed and effectiveness of order fulfillment.
5. Double Checking Packages Before Shipping
Double-checking packages before shipping is crucial for cutting down on possible returns and improving the effectiveness of an apparel store’s fulfillment. Before sending items out, inspect each item against its corresponding order to verify a match.
Pay careful attention to various SKUs, including their sizes, colors, and quantities, ensuring they align with the customer’s demands. This simple yet effective practice minimizes the chances of shipping incorrect or incomplete orders, saves time, and reduces return costs.
6. Maintaining Clear Customer Communication
Effective communication with your customers is essential. Every fashion brand can attribute its success to how well they satisfy its customers, starting from the moment customers place their orders up until the items are delivered.
Start by being open and clear – giving customers accurate shipping timelines, promptly informing them of delays, and explaining your return policy and process in detail.
Should I Outsource My Apparel Store’s Order Fulfillment?
Most medium and large apparel merchants outsource their fulfillment operations. Oftentimes, this is done to increase the merchant’s customer fulfillment capabilities, create time for more important business efforts (customer acquisition, branding, marketing, etc.), and reduce the costs and limitations of self-fulfillment.
Working with an expert third-party fulfillment company will take a lot of stress off of you as well. The maximum amount of inventory you can process can limit your sales if your business receives a high volume of orders.
But, with a fulfillment agent like Globallyfulfill, you can pass on the manual and demanding processes to fulfillment professionals as you gain more time to focus on more rewarding aspects of your business like branding and customer acquisition.
Final Thoughts of The Basics of Apparel Fulfillment
Apparel fulfillment is one of the most important parts of your clothing company’s operations. From managing inventory to handling returns, each stage poses its unique difficulties.
To overcome some of these challenges, choose your warehouse location strategically. Let customers track their orders. Use data-enabled demand forecasting tools to avoid having too much or too little stock. Automate manual operations with technology. Double check packages before shipping and provide proactive customer service.
Without doubt, apparel fulfillment optimization can be a daunting task for small and medium sized businesses.
However, by partnering with reliable third-party fulfillment providers, you can alleviate the complex and manual-intensive nature of apparel fulfillment, helping you create the time to focus on more important and more productive aspects of your business like brand building and customer acquisition.