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The supply chain, the final mile and the Great Oz

Ulta Beauty, Seko Logistics leaders discuss approaches to e-commerce fulfillment

Brian Bourke, chief growth officer for Seko Logistics, speaks during the Home Delivery World 2022 conference in Philadelphia. Bourke announced a new service, Seko Live, designed to reduce returns in the supply chain. (Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves)

PHILADELPHIA — Home Delivery World 2022 kicked off with a bang on Wednesday with a pair of keynote speakers who quickly put the role e-commerce now plays in supply chains in clear focus.

“[It’s] like the Great Oz, we mystically sat in the background. Enter 2020,” Amiee Bayer-Thomas, chief supply chain officer for Ulta Beauty, told morning attendees at the conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“If you are not winning today in the supply chain, you’re not winning at all,” she added.

While Bayer-Thomas highlighted how Ulta Beauty is leveraging its supply chain, Brian Bourke, chief growth officer for Seko Logistics, highlighted the important final miles of the supply chain. Announcing a new product, Seko Live, Bourke noted that the final mile is really about the final hour, especially when it comes to costly returns of big and bulky items.

Building partnerships

“E-commerce is all about an ecosystem and creating great partners,” Bourke said during his keynote immediately following Bayer-Thomas’.

Seko, Bourke said, has partnered with some great companies — naming FloorFound, RMX, ESW and Bringg specifically — but it will never know enough about products as the brand does, especially in the big and bulky space where setup is often required. Because of that, and understanding how important customer service is — 80% of customers will return a damaged item, and 96% will not shop a brand again if they have a bad customer experience — Seko felt the need to launch the new product.

“[Brands] will invest, simplify the delivery experience and focus on the sale,” Bourke said. “We will never be as good with the product as you.”

Seko Live “prevents that [item] from becoming a return,” he added.

The technology is hyperlink-based — no app is needed — and allows the brand to connect directly with the customer. It will resolve last-mile issues “at the last inch,” Bourke said. Seko Live connects directly with the brand’s control tower.

In the U.S. alone, returns cost retailers over $760 billion annually in lost sales and add significantly to their carbon footprint, often because their customers can’t get timely information or product assistance to finalize a delivery and installation, Seko said.

Bourke said the ability to quickly handle a customer’s issue can prevent some of these returns. Configurable to each retailer’s requirements, including a retailer-branded interface, Seko Live enables customers to instantly share, stream and connect with central resources during product installation or self-installation to quickly resolve questions or concerns raised by the end user.

“In most cases, home deliveries of big and bulky items are completed exactly as planned, but if a customer has questions or uncertainties about their purchase, the time window to save the sale and prevent a return can be literally minutes,” said James Gagne, Seko’s president and CEO. “Seko Live is a scalable, low-cost solution that maximizes the customer experience and minimizes lost sales by connecting customers with the real-time expert advice and customer service support they need. This not only protects the sale, but it also avoids the risk of damaging reviews that could negatively impact sales.”

1,300 fulfillment centers

While Seko is innovating in the final mile, Ulta Beauty is turning its supply chain into a critical part of the customer journey.

“We know consumer expectations are changing,” Bayer-Thomas said. “They no longer shop in a linear manner.

“Operationally, the stores act as 1,300 mini distribution centers for us,” she added. “They act as [shipping centers] and for product discovery.”

Ulta has six distribution centers supporting its stores in addition to 200 Ulta at Target locations, and in the second quarter of 2023 will be opening its first market fulfillment center in Greer, South Carolina. The company has introduced a warehouse execution system to control and balance workflows, autonomous mobile robots that allow workers to pick items for both e-commerce and in-store fulfillment at the same time, and goods-to-person systems.

All of that is useless without investments in capabilities and processes, Bayer-Thomas noted. Investments in this area will enable a seamless product flow “from vendor to guest” and help Ulta track inventory, whether that is in the warehouse, the store or even at the vendor prior to arrival within its network.

“All of these efforts are going to help us better value our fulfillment network,” she said.

The last mile is the focus of Home Delivery World, but Bourke’s and Bayer-Thomas’ keynote addresses showed that it is more than just dropping a box on a customer’s doorstep. The last mile starts much earlier in the process and continues long after the delivery.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected].