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Five strategies for surviving the summer as a food & beverage warehouse

Although most of us look forward to the summertime, for food & beverage warehousing professionals, the appearance of the sun can be a harbinger of logistical nightmares! Traditionally a time of increased demand, the warmer months are also the time when experienced, valuable members of staff are most likely to take their hard-earned holidays. Ultimately, many warehouses are left in a vulnerable position, attempting to juggle a steep rise in demand alongside an equally steep drop in the number of seasoned team members available to manage the workload. If you face this annual challenge, you're not alone! This is an on-going issue that causes issues every year. Take a look at how the problem develops and discover five effective strategies for ensuring your warehouse emerges into autumn unscathed.

What causes summer difficulties?

Rising temperatures and the more relaxed, leisured lifestyle associated with the summer holiday period brings about a fast, significant change in consumer behaviour. There is an increased demand for: chilled products; ice cream; cold drinks; salads and pre-cooked meats; fresh fruit; picnic materials; and beer, Pimms and similar "summertime" alcoholic beverages. Bank holidays, key sporting events (for example Wimbledon) and a large number of festivals, shows, open days, fetes and similar (all of which will have food and beverage outlets on site) contribute to the rising demand for certain foodstuffs. The rise in the demand for perishables is particularly problematic, due to the limited shelf life.

Weather dependent demand and staff holidays

The picture is further complicated by the way in which food consumption in summer is frequently determined by the weather: a mini-heatwave will send demand for lollies soaring; a cold couple of days will see salads firmly off the menu. Either scenario can wreak havoc with supply logistics. At the same time, long-serving members of staff, including senior managers, are likely to take time off to enjoy their annual holiday. This means that those left behind often aren't the most appropriately skilled people to deal with volatile demands, a high percentage of perishable stock and a raised chance of unforeseen events. To keep the difficulties these circumstances might cause to a minimum, we suggest the following strategies.

1. Plan ahead: learn from last year

It's surprising how many warehouses stagger through summer one year, only to repeat exactly the same mistakes the next! One of the key ways to avoid summer chaos is to plan ahead. Forward planning requires gathering information that's as accurate as possible in order to plan suitable contingencies. To a degree, analysis of past demand patterns can allow the establishment of supply and distribution plans based on what worked previously. Obviously there can be fluctuations, but working on past performance with a build in margin to accommodate variations provides a robust model that stands a fair chance of success.

We suggest:

- The old saying, "don't put all your eggs in one basket" is particularly true here: when planning holiday rotas, make sure that at least one seasoned manager will be on site throughout the summer period.
- Clear the decks: try to make sure that scheduled maintenance is up-to-date prior to the summer rush. If maintenance or fresh fit outs can't be fitted in beforehand, can they wait until afterwards? Minimising downtime is vital if demand is to be met.
- Make sure there are no competing demands on management time. Internal projects (for example restructuring or the introduction of new ways of working) ideally should be scheduled when there are more managers available to spread the load.
- Make sure that you have enough equipment to cope with the rush! Sufficient pallet trucks, order pickers and stackers in good condition are essential if your team are going to cope with the summer madness effectively!

2. Streamline your operation

Many warehouses still aren't making sufficient use of tech: this isn't just holding them back from achieving enhanced efficiency, it can also increase the chances of a crisis during the summer rush. Investing in systems such as a warehouse management system (WHS) and/or radio frequency identification (RFID) using handheld trackers don't just make your operation more efficient, they also reduce the chances of human error. Particularly in the summer months, when using agency or other temporary workers may be essential to cope with increased demand, a high-tech system will automatically eliminate as many opportunities for mistakes as possible. Effortlessly efficient working has two significant advantages for summer logistics management:

- It makes it easier to employ temporary workers, as lower levels of skill and familiarity with your operation are required.
- Temporary workers want to do a good job: providing them with the tech needed to succeed, even with limited training and experience, means you are more likely to get retention, optimising the chances that shifts will be covered, hopefully by the same workers.

Over time, figures suggest that it's possible to recoup the costs of adopting a hi-tech approach over just a few years. Whilst summer isn't necessarily the right time to implement major changes in ways of working, if it will ultimately lead to enhanced performance during one of the busiest, most demanding periods of the year, it may be worth forging ahead now. Taking the time to make sure your tech is in place, alongside the provision of high-grade handling and picking equipment (such as sack trucks, turntables and scissor lifts) increases the chance of a trouble free summer.

3. Get your team on board

If your warehouse is going to survive the summer season with satisfied customers and happy suppliers, the support of your team is essential. To make sure that staff morale is high and that everyone is committed to achieving the demanding objectives summer working requires, we suggest the following:

- Effective communication: a mixture of staff briefings, publicity materials, updates and consultation periods can help to ensure all team members are aware of the challenges and have sufficient resources to meet them.
- Listen to the shop floor: from practical suggestions for keeping workers cooler when temperatures make work a challenge through to ways that picking times could be improved, shop floor personnel often have excellent, implementable suggestions to bring to the table.
- Make sure workers have the tools they need to do the job properly: if they say they need more stackers, or that their current electric pallet trucks aren't up to the challenge, now is the time to invest in fresh equipment.
- Put in place incentives and rewards: make sure that your workforce knows that they're valued. In addition to financial incentives for performance and attendance, employees may also appreciate being named and thanked publically for their contribution, or given additional responsibilities as a precursor to promotion. Appointing "acting" team leaders and managers during the summer period to cover holiday leave can work well over the summer period: staff get the chance to test their mettle in a more senior role, whilst reducing the need to use agency staff or leave work undone.

4. Consider staffing solutions in advance

Although the traditional method of dealing with summer staffing shortages caused by holidays is to recruit agency or temporary workers, this isn't the only (or even always the best) option. Obviously, if workers aren't around, there is still a need for the job to be done: here we look at a number of alternatives to temporary workers.

- Consider using unpaid labour and provide a training opportunity in return: in partnership with a third party organisation, it's often possible to find unpaid workers who wish to acquire workplace skills in return for their labour on a temporary basis. Provided you are confident that you will be able to offer them suitable training in return for their efforts (and potentially a permanent role), this may be worth considering.
- Seconding staff from other roles: although the shop floor may be busy, other departments may be less so. Consider the feasibility of seconding staff from other roles to cope with the summer demand. This approach can provide exciting development opportunities for staff, giving them additional skills and potentially opening up fresh career directions.
- Offering additional overtime: many staff will be grateful for the opportunity to make some extra cash over the holiday period: giving them first refusal on the additional hours which are available can be a good alternative to employing additional staff.

5. Evaluation and learning is an on-going task

As demand begins to rise and the pressure begins to bite, there can be a sense of "no return" about managing the situation. Crucially, taking the time to look objectively at how your warehouse operation is proceeding on a daily basis provides the chance to implement changes before a potentially negative situation gets out of hand. By deploying the plans which have been made previously, there is a chance to see how well these work out in practice. Building on previous experience, evaluating present performance and adjusting parameters in an attempt to anticipate any future problems creates a helpful loop of positive, informed action.

Almost inevitably, at times, problems will crop up. Hopefully, if the initial planning and contingency development has been completed correctly, resolving the issues as they emerge should be a fairly straight-forward process. Whilst nobody can predict the future, forward planning and effective management can usually ensure that your warehouse team can rise to whatever challenge lies before it!

Conclusion

If you're committed to meeting the challenge of summer demand, SHS Handling Solutions are here to help. We offer a complete range of industrial warehouse equipment, designed to make stock handling easier, safer and more efficient. From cutting-edge order pickers through to health & safety supplies, stackers, access equipment and more, when it comes to warehouses, we've got it covered.