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Innovative tech to cope with peak seasons

It is part of the yearly cycle: demand comes and goes, but seasonal peaks are something experienced by every sector in some way and at some time.

The US National Retail Federation estimates that the winter holiday season represents 20-30% of total retail sales. Plus, holiday sales have been growing at an annual rate of 2.5% for the last 10 years.

The distribution centers (DCs) feel most when it happens, meaning double the staff during peak seasons. But it does not stop with hiring: seasonal employees must be fully productive in no time with minimum training to offset additional labor cost. 

To counteract this pressure, companies often use automation solutions. The benefits are twofold: while these help them cope with peak demand, they also improve operations in off-peak seasons.   However, there is a range of innovative technology that help you tackle challenges from forecasting to fulfillment all while future-proofing your business. 

Virtualize your warehouse

Forecasting and planning for peak seasons can be simplified with the use of warehouse simulation software. DCs can test their warehouse configuration to the breaking point by examining a series of “what-if” scenarios across a variety of circumstances. This helps them to make assumptions on aggregate demand and to forecast for specific percentage demand increases at any point in time.

Additionally, warehouse simulation allows insight into when, where, and how many seasonal staff need to be added and which supporting technologies to deploy. This is fast, intuitive, and responsive compared to its error-prone and time-consuming traditional counterpart: the spreadsheet model.

Good warehouse simulation software lets DCs visualize and quantify the effects of change in demand, identifying potential bottlenecks, and validating strategies to address them. This could include the deployment of voice-directed technology instead of RF scanning, or autonomous mobile robots, which could be leased and off-hired as demand dictates.

Deploy autonomous mobile robots

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) differ a lot from other forms of automation. Conveyor systems, for example, tend to be fixed into position. This also applies to autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) which operate with autonomous intelligence. They move goods from one point to another and are mostly guided along a fixed path by some mechanism and can be interrupted if the path is obstructed. They may also require manual intervention to resume operations if this occurs.
AMRs on the other hand require little to no guiding infrastructure and can often be installed into an existing operation without any significant infrastructure modifications or operational disruption. They can take on manual movement activities such as intricate product picking, fulfillment and moving pallets. By taking a digital map of their environment through sensors, cameras, and embedded safety mechanisms, they move with very little need for guidance. They can even detect and move around objects or take alternative routes with no instruction. To keep the costs down, they can be hired as a service (RaaS = “Robotics-as-a-Service”). Once a solution has been deployed, adding new robots can increase capacity in real time to keep up with demand.

What are the potential benefits?

  • 100% – Improved picker productivity during both peak and off-peak seasons
  • 15% – Decreased overtime spend during both peak and off-peak seasons
  • 80% – Reduced new hire and seasonal labor training
  • 25% – Decreased errors and improved customer fulfillment
  • 50% – Reduced operational expenditure

Roll out voice technology

Voice technology has traditionally been used for picking processes but is now finding use in applications including:

How does it work?

An operative receives verbal instructions via a headset which is connected to a mobile device on their belt. They then confirm each step through a microphone in real time, before moving on to the next task. Users benefit from having their heads up and hands free, without spending time recoding data onto a clipboard or handheld device. This boosts both productivity and accuracy.

Especially for seasonal workers where time is a crucial factor, voice significantly reduces training time to just a few hours compared to what has traditionally taken 2-3 weeks. Owing to receiving bite-size step-by-step instructions via headset, they can quickly achieve the proficiency and productivity levels of permanent staff. This fast-track training also extends to supervisors brought in specifically for seasonal peaks. It is an intelligent system, too. Within less than an hour, the technology can adapt to the user’s unique language inflections. Added bonus: it operates in over 30 languages.

Technology alone won’t help

It is important to put the right processes in place before looking at technology. This allows businesses to understand which process improvements best serve their requirements. By keeping an open mind, it is easier to find the technology that fulfills the needs best.
As with every technology, the provider that helps you implementing this solution should take the time to understand the ins and outs of your business. Plus, the new systems must align with the needs of your operation, as no two businesses are the same. A “one-size-fits-all” solution doesn’t exist.

Apart from that, it is important not to limit your options. As mentioned, voice technologies can be used for a range of applications such as cycle counting, replenishment and goods returns. So, you can gain both efficiency advantages and economies of scale. Similarly, you can apply AMRs to processes across the supply chain from goods receipt to final dispatch.

It is also important to remember that innovating your processes should never be a done deal. Instead, re-evaluate over time and make necessary changes as your business evolves. This way, technology will deliver the best results.

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