Survive and Thrive During Peak Retail with Automation

Business Insights

The retail industry has had a rollercoaster of a year, from the high street being closed for months on end, to e-commerce operators managing the acceleration of demand during lockdown. Now open and back in business, both online and offline retailers are feeling the pressures ahead of the busy shopping seasons, with Black Friday and Christmas just around the corner.

But without investing in automation, how will retailers scale-up their operations quickly and seamlessly to meet peak challenges with depleted workforces and without incurring additional costs? As Dr Paul Rivers, CEO, Guidance Automation, explains, it’s now or never to embrace retail-tech and automate processes that benefit business in the short term while providing future-proofing, especially ahead of the ecommerce-boom.

Peak Seasons

Across the world, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic led to decreased spending during the 2020 holiday season. Many shoppers feared visiting stores, and footfall fell by over 50% compared to 2019. Non-essential retail was shut over both the Black Friday and Boxing Day sales periods. So how will this compare to 2021 with no restrictions stopping shoppers from accessing these deals?

It is predicted that sales will revert to pre-pandemic patterns, with retailers experiencing two peaks in Q4 trading – one at the end of November sparked by Black Friday and another during the week before Christmas. Therefore, the pressure is on for warehouse staff to manage these increased levels of orders. There is no doubt that retailers will also bring their deals forward to make up for last year’s losses, but this will only create more pressure for fulfilment, and without the right technologies in place, retailers will either sink or swim.

COVID-19 Challenges

Ahead of the peak seasons, retailers need to factor in the possible reduction of labour availability as COVID-19 and seasonal flu cases continue to rise. Many businesses rely on additional seasonal staff to cope with the festive shopping season, but this year, warehouses will struggle to meet demand with manpower alone.

There is also a nationwide shortage of HGV drivers across every industry, leading to slower delivery times and a shortage of stock availability. Likewise, there is a shortage of forklift truck drivers, prompting companies to adopt automated materials handling equipment to optimise the efficiency of their warehouses.

The combination of consumer expectations, peak volumes and labour shortages make this a natural time to consider how automation and robotics can augment and transform existing operations.

Making the Automation Investment

Digital transformation is fundamental for future survival, particularly for retailers during peak seasons. Automation acts as a driver of efficiency and accuracy, streamlining warehouse processes to cope with the demand of Black Friday and Christmas sales. With consumers wanting their presents to arrive in time for the holiday season, automation can ensure that customer satisfaction goals are met by getting the products to the right place, at the right time.

It may be too late to deploy transformative technologies to better manage the holiday shopping surges that will start in a matter of weeks, but there is no better time than now to begin that gradual implementation. An investment in automation and robotic solutions could prevent performance challenges during the next peak, helping retailers get ahead of the 2022 curve.

Rescale and Redeploy

Automating specific process-led roles, such as picking and packing in the warehouse, reduces errors and therefore costs, but also allows the workforce to focus on more complex tasks, such as decision-making. Automation technology and robotic systems can address slow, outdated operations that rely on manual processes and inefficient workflows.

Automation also reduces the need to hire seasonal staff as robotics can be deployed to assemble typical e-commerce orders, making the warehouse less dependent on recruiting the seasonal workforce required to handle growing volumes of packages. It is never too soon to imagine a more successful peak season when reliance on labour is decreased, resulting in fewer errors, higher output and improved safety.


Automation is a crucial element to retailers’ holiday season success. Without it, there is little chance that the growing demands of customers will be met. The last year demonstrated how agile businesses must be to transform their processes when faced with adversity, and emphasised that there may no longer be just one peak shopping season.

It is vital that if retailers want to keep pace with the digital economy, they must have the right technology in place to meet both expected and unanticipated demand.