Document processing & seasonal stress for retailers – it’s not just about the supply chain

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The final quarter of the year is always a demanding time for retailers. The ramp-up to Christmas has started earlier than ever this year, with major brands releasing their festive ads in the first week of November. The logistical challenges of meeting the seasonal peak in demand are well known, and the supply chain issues that have hit retailers this year have been the focus of much media attention. Less frequently discussed are the administrative challenges that can affect retail businesses at this time of year.

The seasonal increase in demand and in sales results in a corresponding increase in paperwork, which includes real paper as well as PDFs, emails, images and photographs. This increased inflow of documents is not restricted to one department. As additional staff are employed to serve more customers in physical stores or pack additional goods into boxes at the warehouse of an online business, onboarding documents are required, even for temporary contracts. Identities have to be verified, references checked and national insurance numbers recorded. New partners and suppliers may also be taken on, not to mention new customers. On top of all this, businesses will be handling increased numbers of incoming invoices, customs declarations, returns, and general correspondence.

Scaling up to handle all of these documents needs to happen fast. 18 months of pandemic-fuelled abnormal shopping behaviour has made it harder than ever for retailers to predict exactly how their sales will perform this season, so there won’t be time to build up capacity slowly. While back-office document handling may not be front of mind to customers, they will soon notice if purchases and returns are not processed quickly, or if there are long queues in stores due to delays in onboarding sales executives. Surprisingly, many organisations still hit bottlenecks in this area. In an age where an online order may be placed and delivered in the space of a few hours, completing the paperwork for a new employee or setting up a customer credit agreement can still take weeks.

Even those companies which have automated their document processes for handling paperwork can experience serious delays during seasonal peaks. Optical character recognition (OCR) is often used during automated processes for intelligent document processing, but it requires enormous server power. A lot of retailers are still using an on-premise model of working, which means that when the volume of documents increases dramatically, processing may slow down and, in a worst-case scenario, come to a standstill.

One solution is to use hybrid systems that contain a flexible cloud component to ensure the best possible performance even when demand is high. These systems absorb peak loads by using artificial intelligence to move image processing, OCR and handwriting recognition to the cloud, where they can be processed much faster. The processing-intensive task takes place in the cloud following data capture and is then directed back into the on-premise system for classification, extraction, validation and export.

More flexibility and smooth processes

By integrating a cloud component into document processing, companies can deal with huge volumes of documents up to ten times faster than in an on-premise solution, using the flexible scalability and almost limitless capacities of the cloud, purely where they are needed. Incoming documents are captured either locally or directly in the cloud. With the integrated cloud component, managers can easily absorb peak loads as well as reduce usage once the critical phase is over and the document volume returns to normal.

In practice, companies that rely on cloud support for their labour-intensive document processing steps achieve noticeably higher performance, processing up to 3,400 pages per minute.

Solutions with consumption-based billing also ensure efficient and transparent cost structures. Companies should also keep security in mind and select a solution that offers server-side encryption as well as HTTPS endpoint protection. With an appropriate professional solution, retail businesses can efficiently absorb their seasonal fluctuations around autumn sales and Christmas and ensure smooth processes at all times.