Use Technology to Enhance Your Reverse Logistics Process

Today’s customers want to return items quickly, easily and for free. These demands put a strain on logistics teams at e-commerce companies of all sizes.

To create a positive return experience for the customer in a way that is effective and efficient for the company, businesses need to tackle the challenges that come with processing returns.

USPS® recently commissioned Provoke Insights to conduct a proprietary study into the e-commerce reverse logistics landscape.

32%of surveyed companies cited manual labor tasks, including reworking, repacking and relabeling, as the biggest challenge to returns.1

After identifying what isn’t working in the returns process, turn to technology. Implementing the right hardware and software can relieve time-consuming manual tasks that slow down the productivity and efficiency of fulfillment employees. More than two-thirds (67%) of companies are already improving their logistics processes with technology.2

Research indicates that these four technologies provide opportunities to enhance and optimize your returns process.

  1. 1

    Automatic Data Capture

    Identify a returned object and gather important data about it without ever opening a package by using scannable barcodes or RFID tags.

    44%of surveyed companies use
    automatic data capture.3

    Primarily, automatic data capture cuts down the amount of valuable employee time spent opening a package, identifying an item, logging the reason for return and deciding where that package goes next.

    When a customer initiates a return online, they can note why they are returning the item. Then, a specific barcode is generated for their return label. Back in the warehouse, a team member can simply scan that code to see if the item is damaged and ineligible for resale or if it was simply the wrong fit for the customer.

  2. 2

    Cloud Computing

    Log and store valuable information about each return—such as the type of return, status, and more—in an accessible shared space.

    37%of surveyed companies
    use cloud computing.4

    The cloud is, in short, internet storage. Rather than managing reports and data on a local computer or server, which requires timely back-and-forth between a network of internal and external stakeholders, businesses can use the cloud for faster and more efficient visibility.

    Most cloud-based management applications also incorporate some level of live editing, meaning stakeholders can see logged updates in near-real time. It also opens the door to better collaboration with partners and broader visibility across the supply chain.

  3. 3

    Predictive Analytics and Big Data

    Discover insightful patterns through data analysis that can forecast and help get ahead of future returns.

    25%of surveyed companies use
    predictive analytics with big data.5

    Using all the data collected from the returns process—including the reasons for returns, as well as their frequency and volume—predictive analytics technology can identify and flag issues that might otherwise have gone undetected.

    For example, if there is a large volume of returns on one item that arrived damaged, the instance would be flagged. Then, a fulfillment team could pre-empt future returns by changing the packaging for that item to prevent issues going forward.

    Predictive analytics informed by big data are time- and money-savers for logistics teams.

  4. 4

    Blockchain

    Track and verify returns against the original transactions to scale back the time and labor of manually checking returns against receipts.

    14%of surveyed companies
    use blockchain.6

    While blockchain technology is still in the early stages of development and use, it is quickly gaining traction and offers a lot of value. The digital ledger of blockchain, which allows information to be digitally distributed but not manipulated or copied, creates a transparent record of a shipment. With this true record, it’s easy to see whether what is in the package when returned matches what was in the package when originally shipped.

    Implementing digital ledger technology scales back the manual labor needed for fulfillment employees to verify returns, allowing them to return focus to their primary roles.

Key Takeaway

These four technologies have been embraced by a number of companies as the keys to an optimal returns process. Leverage one or all of these options and see how technology can help streamline reverse logistics for your business.

While technology offers value for a modern e-commerce business dealing with returns, the landscape of reverse logistics is vast. Discover actionable insights from top companies to tackle seamless product returns head-on: Our full report is an insider guide, rich with proprietary research from Provoke Insights, that can help any business create a sustainable and competitive returns process.

4 Ways Blockchain Can Be Used Throughout the Supply Chain

Blockchain verifies transactions by recording activity on a continuously updated digital ledger, with no central point of control. The technology has become increasingly popular throughout the supply chain and logistics worlds, but there’s still confusion around how exactly it can help managers in their day-to-day jobs.

Below, explore the four most common applications of blockchain in the supply chain—smart contracts, tracking, fraud and theft prevention, and transaction processing.

  1. 1

    Smart Contracts

    Smart contracts, which live on a blockchain, are digital, self-executing contracts that allow for speedy, streamlined transactions.1

    Here’s how they work: Once supply chain partners decide on the terms of a delivery, payment, return or other operation, they’re stored in the blockchain as a unique code.2 This allows payments to be triggered automatically when specified conditions have been met. For example, after setting up a contract with a carrier, a party can put a payment into escrow. Once the receiver confirms receipt of delivery, the payment can be released automatically.

    This helps ensure all steps in a supply chain are carried out efficiently and creates trust among all parties entering into a contract. By cutting down on the risk of errors, delays and nefarious activity, costs can also be reduced—whether related to mitigating mistakes or employing intermediaries to carry out payments.3

  2. 2

    Tracking

    Because all parties given access to a blockchain are able to view the same data as it’s updated in near-real time, it’s easy to track product journeys from initial sourcing to final distribution.4 Having this kind of visibility into every activity and transaction can provide consumers with the full story behind a company’s products, allowing for heightened brand reputation.

    64% of supply chain professionals say that a lack of information on the tracking of product origins has caused inaction or indecision.5

    Because blockchain is a continuously synced ledger—updating in near-real time as transactions and activities are uploaded and recorded—supply chain managers no longer have to hunt down the history of a good’s movement step by step, party by party. This transparency cuts down on delays and associated expenses and can eliminate the need for costly intermediaries hired for oversight.

    Inventory management can also be improved, as companies are better able to forecast future demand, reducing the risk of excess inventory.

  3. 3

    Fraud and Theft Prevention

    In complex, global supply chains with many moving parts, it can be nearly impossible to stay abreast of every interaction. Unfortunately, this can be an open invitation for fraud and theft. Blockchain provides great traceability and transparency, so companies can feel confident that all parties in their network have carried out operations as specified and are complying with regulations.

    In a recent proprietary interview, one blockchain thought leader emphasized the usefulness of the technology when working in industries with a black market or a lot of fraud, which can pose risks to consumers and negatively impact brand value.6

    If the security of the database owner is compromised in a traditional centralized database, then the security of the ledger may be compromised as well. With blockchain, no single party has ownership; all partners view and verify uploaded data, and the entire network establishes a set of rules by which batches of data are automatically validated or rejected.7

    Because each block, or batch of data, is linked to the one preceding it, tampering is almost impossible.8 This brings about a high degree of security, making it very difficult for hacking or tampering to go unnoticed. With the risk of fraud and theft reduced, the time and money spent mitigating such issues are greatly reduced as well.

  4. 4

    Transaction Processing

    Traditional, paper-based transaction processing throughout the supply chain is often slow, inefficient and error-prone.9 With these setups, each party records their transactions for uploading onto a centralized database, owned and controlled by a single entity. When multiple parties are involved in multiple locations, it can be difficult to process all of these transactions quickly and accurately.

    Blockchain, on the other hand, allows all parties to view and validate the same information at the same time, creating consensus and reducing the risk of disputes. This speeds up transaction processing, while the unalterable nature of the database enhances security.10

    In another interview, one blockchain thought leader stated the benefits simply, noting how the technology can replace time-consuming, traditional paper-based processes in the world of shipping and logistics.11

    With blockchain, intermediaries are no longer needed to process and cross‑reference complex supply chain transactions, and waiting for payments to be processed becomes a thing of the past.

Learn More About Blockchain

As blockchain becomes more common throughout nearly all facets of the industry, supply chain managers are taking steps to learn about the basics of the technology and what it can do for their business. Smart contracts, tracking, fraud and theft prevention, and transaction processing are just a few of the ways supply chain and logistics professionals can begin applying blockchain.

To learn more about the technology and how it can be used throughout the supply chain, explore the USPS® in-depth blockchain experience.

The 5 Steps to Implementing Marketing AI

Artificial intelligence (AI), a form of computer science that uses machine intelligence to perform complex analyses, has started to make waves in the marketing industry, yet brands have been slow to adopt it. According to a recent study by USPS, marketers face a number of hurdles when it comes to AI adoption:

57% of respondents said allocating budget was a challenge1
48% of respondents said getting upper management on board was a challenge1
43% of respondents said training and recruiting staff with the right skills was a challenge1
39% of respondents said knowing where to start was a challenge1

Industry experts said the latter was the most important hurdle to cross. With so many different AI applications, marketers need help jump-starting the process of experimenting and implementing AI.

“It’s not like AI is this awesome hammer and all you need to do is find a bunch of nails. It comes down to what business problems you want to solve.” – Machine learning expert1,2

To overcome barriers, experts recommended five simple steps to help your company get in the game.

  1. 1

    Start with a use case that isn’t business-critical.

    This gives you room to experiment. Choose a part of your marketing strategy that’s less essential to overall success. The less important it is to your business, the easier it’ll be to try new AI solutions.

  2. 2

    Pick an application within your area of expertise.

    Are you an expert at social media? Do you have a solid grasp of direct mail? Focus on the channels you know and pick AI solutions that could help improve metrics and increase efficiencies. For help deciding how to include AI in your marketing, try our AI Marketing Idea Generator.

  3. 3

    Buy a Software as a Service (SaaS) model to test different AI tools.

    Instead of using one software or technology that will quickly depreciate, turn to SaaS models, which continuously improve their software. This will allow you to avoid paying for every technology update and test different tools as your business changes.

  4. 4

    Lean on solution providers for training.

    Providers that offer AI marketing solutions—like SaaS or social media companies—are happy to help you start implementing. Turn to their support teams for proper training on their products.

  5. 5

    Have clear goals and success metrics to prove value.

    No experiment can function without a goal in mind. Decide what KPIs are most important for your AI test. AI solutions have been proven to help free up personnel for other tasks, lower the cost of customer acquisition, generate more leads, improve click-through rates and boost social media reach.

Key Takeaway

With the majority of companies still warming to AI, the time is ripe for capitalizing on this untapped market. Companies that get a head start stand to reap the benefits in the future. Begin small and scale as your applications start showing business-driving results.

Is Blockchain Right for Your Supply Chain?

As blockchain continues to gain traction throughout many areas of business and industry, supply chain managers are taking notice.

In a recent survey commissioned by USPS® and carried out by SIS International Market Research, 66% of supply chain professionals said they were at least “moderately familiar” with the technology.1

Managers know that blockchain can offer great benefits throughout the supply chain, but they also know that being at the forefront of this technology comes with some risks—time and money spent.

To determine if blockchain is the answer for your supply chain, you have to ask the right questions. Think through the six questions below to get started.

1. Are multiple external parties involved in your logistics or supply chain?

The more external partners in your supply chain, the more complex and time-consuming processes become—and the harder it is to keep track of them.

Within complex, globalized supply chains, payments can take days, and tracing parts back to their source can be difficult. This can make it nearly impossible to confirm, for example, that ethical processes have been followed, or to pinpoint the exact source of materials.

If your supply chain is comprised of numerous parties across various locations, implementing blockchain may be very beneficial for your business, allowing you to keep track of all operations and transactions through a single, automatically updated ledger.

Blockchain can offer 100% traceability and guaranteed origins on products.2

If this is not currently an issue for your business, it’s still worthwhile to learn about the technology and stay ahead of the curve. Plus, the more your business grows, the more complex your supply chain may become. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of blockchain.

2. Is there a need for a shared, common database between parties?

In supply chains involving multiple external parties, efficiently recording, sharing and verifying data can be challenging. With different parties using different databases, businesses often have to track down partners’ information one by one.

With blockchain, data is continuously synced across a common ledger. All partners view the same data at the same time, allowing transactions to be recorded and verified in near-real time. This makes it easy to provide all stakeholders with the assurance that best practices have been followed, compliance has been achieved, deliveries carried out as specified and so on.

82% of supply chain professionals are willing to share data with third parties and competitors at a level that would be necessary for successful blockchain development.3

If you’ve been finding it challenging to keep track of or verify such activities, blockchain may be a good fit—eliminating the need for error-prone, time-consuming paper-based systems and making it quicker and simpler to update data.

3. Do the parties have conflicting interests?

When multiple parties are involved in a supply chain, conflicting interests are often involved as well.

For example, your supply chain partners may have conflicting competitor relationships, industry standards or quality-control requirements. Differing priorities can complicate supply chain processes—while one supplier may be primarily concerned with speed and efficiency, another may be focused on keeping down costs.

Blockchain can help mitigate this friction, allowing for better end-to-end management and oversight. With a single, constantly updated database, it’s much easier to keep track of partners’ activities and transactions, gauge timing, and predict and mitigate issues.

58% of supply chain professionals said they expect blockchain to improve tracking.4

4. Do the parties mistrust each other?

A lack of trust among partners within your supply chain can make even the simplest processes complicated and stressful. If one party doesn’t trust another party to record data accurately—and not alter it for nefarious or self-serving purposes—the integrity of the entire supply chain can be compromised.

As one blockchain thought leader put it, “Blockchain is ultimately [about solving] a trust issue.”5

Blockchain offers end-to-end transparency, allowing all parties to view and confirm others’ activities. And because the ledger is immutable, meaning it cannot be changed once batches of data are uploaded and verified across the network, tampering or hacking is nearly impossible.

If you’re currently using third parties to help establish trust, blockchain could be a smart choice, eliminating the need for often-expensive intermediaries.

5. Are there differences in the rules that govern parties?

When different parties within a supply chain must adhere to different guidelines and regulations—whether self-imposed, governmental, environmental or industry-wide—conflict and confusion can ensue.

With traditional databases, it can be difficult and time-consuming to confirm various partners’ compliance and keep track of different regulations throughout the supply chain. Having to confirm compliance with individual parties can cause significant delays in moving products through a supply chain—especially when partners are spread out across the globe.

With businesses and consumers alike expecting speedy delivery of goods, the old way of recording and verifying information is becoming increasingly cumbersome. If you’re struggling to keep track of your partners’ compliance or often experience delays as a result of compliance issues, blockchain could be a good solve.

6. Do the rules governing transactions rarely change?

For blockchain to benefit a supply chain, the rules governing transactions and operations should not change often.

When using blockchain, a detailed set of rules is established by all in the network, creating a protocol by which transactions can be verified automatically—or rejected, if tampering, hacking or inaccurate data is apparent. This is what creates such high security within a blockchain; once a set of rules is established, the validity of uploaded data from every supply chain partner can be quickly and reliably validated.

If such rules cannot be established, blockchain would not be beneficial to your supply chain. But if your business is currently operating without specific transaction guidelines in place and you’re looking to achieve uniformity and higher efficiency, blockchain can be an ideal solution.

Implementing Blockchain in the Supply Chain

If you’ve determined that blockchain may be right for your supply chain, explore our in-depth digital experience, where you can dive into the key benefits of blockchain, learn more about the technical inner workings of the technology and explore a helpful use case.