Taking a smart approach to dock appointment scheduling


Whether managing the complexity of fresh food or meeting customer promises for rapid delivery, the efficiency with which retailers and suppliers manage the inbound and outbound processes within the Distribution Centre (DC) or warehouse is critical. 

From ensuring the right resources are in place to effectively prioritising activity based on a range of criteria, Pól Sweeney, Vice President of UK Sales and Business Management at Descartes, outlines the transformation in the speed and responsiveness of DC operations enabled by dock appointment scheduling, as retailers move ever closer to the ‘just in time’ supply chain.

Supply Chain Optimisation

Balancing customer demand for more choice and faster delivery while minimising wastage, avoiding unplanned discounts and managing peak promotions is creating the need for an ever more sophisticated and insight driven supply chain. Over the past few years, many retailers have achieved new levels of supply chain optimisation, with just in time product ordering and slick returns models. However, there remain key pinch points within the process that are adding costs and jeopardising the delivery of just in time optimisation.

One of the biggest areas of inefficiency is the continued reliance on manual coordination of dock scheduling within the DC. In an ideal world, trucks will turn up on time, to the correct door; the DC will have the right number of staff ready to unload – or load – and the correct specialist equipment, if needed, in place. However, for most DCs with a reliance on paper-based management of dock arrivals and resources, the reality is very different. Trucks are left waiting – potentially for hours, staff are either working overtime, or paid to sit around in between arrivals. Deliveries are not effectively prioritised. There is no transparency of operations – and none of the control that is becoming a prerequisite for a highly efficient end-to-end supply chain.

With the increase in complexity from meeting expanding customer choice and the rise in rapid fulfilment associated with ecommerce orders, retailers need flexibility and better control over both inbound and outbound DC activity.

Business Cost

One of the biggest challenges is the need to prioritise activity. From in demand goods to short shelf life or fresh produce, from frozen products to the spike of peak season activity, any mishap in the schedule can cause mayhem. And this mayhem is hugely costly. Carriers may impose penalties if drivers endure excessive waiting times – for both delivery and collection.  Unscheduled overtime pay is often required to handle late or delayed loading or unloading – yet at other times staff are often hanging around with nothing to do.

The knock-on business costs are also significant. Poor management can lead to lost shipments. Delays – especially to fresh goods – can result in spoilage. Failure to prioritise goods for distant stores over local will compromise the in-store customer experience; while slow turnaround within the DC can result in goods wastage, especially with returned items that can no longer be incorporated within the supply chain.

Without visibility and control over the dock appointment process, retailers cannot efficiently allocate the right resources – from staff to specialist equipment – at the right time. There is no way to track carrier performance or identify those companies that are persistently late – or early; or drivers / trucks that spend 120 minutes on site each time, rather than the 80-minute average – affecting other organisations within the supply chain.

Transforming Dock Management

An optimised dock management process can transform the timeliness of inbound and outbound transportation at loading docks and deliver new DC efficiencies. Proactive, collaborative dock scheduling allows carriers / suppliers to request appointments – and the solution will automatically offer a number of slots based on goods’ priority, available dock spaces, staff and equipment. Essentially, every dock appointment is allocated based on accurate business needs and operational capacity.

With this complete and real-time insight, retailers can become far more sophisticated in prioritising activity, considering customer demand, loads, product types and delivery destinations. Booking based on priority, and assessed and optimised in line with capacity ensures a smooth transition between inbound and outbound activity – and with this complete visibility of the dock management process, retailers can begin to explore trends in operations. Out of norm behaviour can be rapidly identified, enabling change and further optimisation of the process. Reporting capabilities can show metrics such as ‘on time’ performance and ‘no show’ reports by carrier or supplier; or identify a specific delivery – driver or load type – that takes longer than the norm to load / unload.

The ability to demonstrate the cost to the business associated with a delay or ‘no show’ provides a retailer with the chance to identify problems, work proactively with carriers to improve performance and, if required, open a dialogue with suppliers about their carrier choice and the associated business impact.

Achieving Just in Time Retail

This highly automated, transparent dock management model transforms business performance for retailers, carriers and suppliers. Each appointment is confirmed online, with the driver being given a specified timeslot and dock number – enabling carriers to more confidently schedule on-going activity. Gate guards can access the same information to ensure only booked trucks are allowed in – and directed to the correct location; alternatively, number plate recognition can be used to automate secure entry.

For retailers this efficient operation means avoiding costly delays and minimising wastage; while staffing levels can be optimised to reduce costs, avoiding both overtime and slack periods. For suppliers and carriers alike, it means avoiding time consuming delays while lorries wait for a dock to be available. Not only does this eradicate the environmental impact of trucks with engines running to ensure the correct ambient temperature of goods; it also minimises the knock-on effects on the carrier’s route planning – from drivers at risk of exceeding permitted drivers’ hours to compromising relationships due to delayed delivery.


Dock management is a critical component that can affect a retailer’s entire operation – especially when dealing with large-scale and fast-moving supply chains. From efficiently managing fresh and frozen goods, to confidently meeting consumer promises for rapid FMCG delivery, an intelligent system recommending appointment times based on true receiving capacity can transform operations.

The ability to manage demand in line with resources and capacity; to prioritise deliveries and create a foundation for better carrier/supplier collaboration addresses this key pinch point within the supply chain. By moving from a manual, somewhat ad hoc approach to dock management to a fully automated, insight driven, metric measured model, retailers can achieve new and essential levels of control within this key component of DC operations.