How Middle Mile Visibility Supports E-Commerce Success

When it comes to meeting the expectations of online customers, middle mile delivery performance is just as crucial as the last mile in e-commerce. The middle mile connects a distribution center to an e-commerce fulfillment center or a store in the traditional retail supply chain, and positions inventory close to customers to ensure the necessary stock at fulfillment centers. Having visibility over middle mile shipments in transit enables the fulfillment center to respond to off-schedule deliveries and make operational adjustments to keep order promises to customers.

The Importance of the Middle Mile

Getting products to the doorstep of a customer is a multi-step journey. The “first mile” of that journey refers to the movement of goods to a distribution center (DC) from a factory or, in the case of imports, from an airport or port. Middle mile delivery involves reallocating inventory from the DC to a fulfillment center. The last mile, of course, refers to the final stage of transporting a product to the customer’s door.

Middle mile delivery is usually done by motor carriers, either truckload or less-than-load truckload (LTL). Because during transit, trucks can encounter unanticipated obstacles, many times their deliveries don’t arrive on schedule. Traffic congestion is a particular problem for fulfillment centers located in densely populated urban areas. Bad weather, traffic accidents, or roadwork can cause delays no matter where the center is located.

Missed delivery schedules for replenishment can jeopardize product availability for order fulfillment. That’s especially critical for those online retailers doing just-in-time fulfillment — accepting orders with the expectation that the inbound shipment of goods will be delivered to the fulfillment center in time for the product to be picked and shipped outbound. Since the order must be ready for pickup when a parcel carrier arrives at the center, a late arrival of an inbound shipment can jeopardize the online retailer meeting its “Critical Pull Time (CPT),” the specific time that the order must be picked, packed, and ready to go out the door.

Fulfillment Center Responsiveness to Inbound Delays

Real-time tracking of middle mile shipments, along with predictive estimated time of arrivals (ETAs) for accurate delivery windows, enables online retailers to take action to manage the impact of delivery delays on the order fulfillment process. If alerted to a delay, fulfillment center managers can reassign labor to ensure adequate staffing to unload trucks or pick items for orders to meet the CPT.

In addition to inbound shipment visibility, analytics on middle-mile carrier performance can help the online retailer fix issues that impact product availability or meeting CPT. By analyzing delivery performance data by lane and carrier, online retailers can investigate trends and understand issues that might impact replenishment for order turnaround. Data analysis enables them to work with carriers to make changes to improve the timely execution of order fulfillment. 

The Crucial Need for Middle Mile Visibility

Having inventory on hand in a fulfillment center to meet customer orders is essential to e-commerce success. As many online retailers are counting on transshipments from the DC to the fulfillment center to arrive on schedule, middle mile visibility gives them the foresight needed to make operational adjustments to keep customer order commitments.