From Prime Day and back-to-school shopping to the big holiday test at the end of the year, peak season preparation follows a similar, steadily evolving playbook through the years. But 2020 is unique.

COVID-19 has altered the supply chain landscape, with US e-commerce spending in April rising 49% compared to a baseline period in early March before shelter-in-place restrictions went into effect.

Yet even in unique circumstances, delivery networks must still prepare for the holiday peak season. Just last year, package volume exceeded delivery network capacity, leaving major carriers scrambling to deliver late-arriving gifts and deal with a barrage of negative customer feedback. Now holiday peak season is coming once again, and parcel distribution centers are dusting off old playbooks to source labor and equipment to meet demand. But what if the answer to peak preparation is not a temporary solution, but a more permanent shift in approach?

Year-Round Challenges, Magnified During Peaks and Special Circumstances

E-commerce volumes in general continue to rise, more than tripling as a percentage of total retail sales in little more than a decade, growing from 5.1% in 2007 to 16% in 2019, according to Digital Commerce 360. But holiday peaks and the unique circumstances of COVID-19 have special ingredients to exert extra stress on fulfillment and delivery networks.

In fact, some lessons learned during past peak seasons are being implemented to help carriers handle volumes during COVID-19. For example, FedEx placed a limit on the number of items retailers can ship from certain locations in an effort to regulate the flow of online shipments. During the holidays, everyone has the same deadline – and an extension is not possible. If online shoppers order late, they still expect their gifts to be delivered in time for the holidays. Rather than late orders coming with an equivalent extension, the window to pack, ship, and deliver shrinks.

Prior to COVID-19, competition for available labor was fierce enough to drive warehouse worker turnover at a rate of 46.1% annually. Now, the labor situation remains a challenge, but one of a different nature as the need for health and safety reigns supreme as economies re-open. Guidelines for social distancing and other safe practices are emerging for the warehouse as supply chains look to scale up to meet massive demand. Amazon has mandated employees stay 6 feet away from colleagues and is using disciplinary action to ensure compliance. Cushman & Wakefield has released six workplace readiness essentials for health and safety.

Embrace Automation as a Tool to Scale

The forces affecting distribution centers during peaks are the same ones dictating permanent shifts in the industry. E-commerce is growing at a scale in which both scaling up for peak volumes and handling long-term growth cannot be achieved by simply adding labor. With these foundational realities in mind along with recent growth in e-commerce as a result of COVID-19, scaling up for peak season is no longer a fleeting, temporary act. Instead, it requires a more permanent, strategic shift to automation.

Automation enables operations to handle high order volumes with the speed necessary to meet the increasingly fast delivery commitments of e-commerce and reduces dependency labor. Repetitive, low-value tasks can be delegated to automation and processes can be reconfigured to space workers further apart and handle less physically demanding tasks that magnify their strengths.

Take the task of unloading trailers of incoming freight. Using an extendable conveyor that reaches completely inside a trailer can allow a worker to simply turn and place parcels at an ergonomic height. This smart deployment of automation boosts individual productivity by minimizing walk time, and it helps reduce repetitive bending and twisting to help reduce fatigue and enable longer lasting productivity.

But automation is no silver bullet. Handling peak season is not just a question of package volume, but package type. Contemporary e-commerce brings special challenges in the form of package variety and irregular items that can challenge automation to fully deliver on promises of peak efficiency.

Handle Package Variety, Changing Conditions in Stride

With consumers ordering everything from jewelry and apparel to power tools and furniture, critical automated systems must keep up. Traditionally, non-conveyable items that are especially heavy, oddly shaped, oversized, or otherwise challenging for automated equipment have been a major driver of temporary labor in distribution centers.

This packaging variety pushes product development teams to innovate. For example, take tilt-tray sorters and autonomous mobile robots. Large tilt-tray solutions handle everything from golf clubs to flat pack furniture, expanding maximum item length from 48 to 78 inches. Autonomous mobile robots offer immense flexibility, both in their ability to carry large items and to work in a variety of workflows. Robotics and associated solutions can adapt to change and get new functionality via software updates. For example, social distancing features can work to proactively help workers keep a safe distance and send an alert if a safe zone of six feet is breached.

The Right Long-Term Fit

In planning for sustained growth, holiday peaks, and unique circumstances, distribution centers must maximize utility and flexibility from automation investments. Thorough demand planning, system design, and engineering is necessary to deliver the proper mix of equipment, technology and labor applied through the right processes to scale for peaks and handle daily business most efficiently.

Rush Fullerton is Vice President, Material Handling Systems, Inc.

This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2020 issue of PARCEL.