E-Commerce is booming. More than 90 percent of Germans shop online every year. Many articles are still delivered on the day of the order. These enormous logistical challenges require innovative solutions such as those developed by Dematic. Some process steps in online retailing are not as new as they seem at first glance.

It all started in the northeast of the United States.

The beginnings of the mail order business lie in the USA. Montgomery Ward, a Chicago sales representative, was in charge of farmers in western Illinois in 1872. After hours of travelling, he personally praised his goods to the customer – an enormous personal effort. To avoid this, Ward had a brilliant idea: instead of personally presenting his products, he printed them on a single piece of paper. One of the world’s first mail-order catalogues was born. The process took place by post. Orders arrived at Ward and were assembled by hand by his employees. The finished parcel was then delivered by post, but not to the customer’s own front door, but to the nearest railway station.
Hardly ten years after Ward, German companies also printed illustrated mail-order catalogues. The first peak phase of the large mail-order companies followed in the 1920s and 1930s. Quelle and Neckermann were founded, and numerous textile entrepreneurs entered the mail order business. Many mail order companies initially came from the regular retail trade; at that time, mail order was still a niche business in order to reach customers further away.

The 60s are the golden days of mail-order business

During the years of the economic miracle, the great hour of mail-order business in Germany struck. Otto, Bertelsmann and Co. profited from the new prosperity, received more and more orders and had to optimize their processes. Stöhr, a predecessor of Dematic, developed the first automatic transport system with overhead conveyor technology for Neckermann in 1962. The special thing about the solution was that it was connected to a mainframe computer – in the jargon of the time “electron brain”. Customer orders were recorded on punched cards, which were fed into the mainframe computer. The computer automatically determined the price of the goods, their weight, postage, packaging and location in the warehouse. Thus, the Stöhr system could process up to 15,000 orders per day. An achievement that was hardly imaginable until now.
As technology and automation progressed, gigantic distribution centers with state-of-the-art high-bay warehouse technology and computer control were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Reunification then gave the domestic mail order business another enormous boost. In 1991, Quelle built a state-of-the-art dispatch centre in Leipzig. Hardly a year later, Otto followed suit in Haldensleben with an innovative solution from Dematic’s predecessor Demag. An initially almost inconspicuous milestone followed in 1994. In Philadelphia, Phil Brandenberger ordered a CD by the musician Sting. The special thing about it: Brandenberger paid online with his credit card – for the first time worldwide. The previously common invoicing business was gradually replaced.

The future belongs to e-commerce

The digital age was also dawning in the mail order business. With the insolvency of Neckermann in 2012 at the latest, it became clear that the future lies in e-commerce. At that time, customers were already increasingly on the move on the Internet. Their expectations of “Everywhere-Commerce” were always driving new developmental impulses. In 2006, Dematic set an industry standard for the acceleration and optimization of intralogistics processes with the Multishuttle.

The Dematic bag sorting system ensures accelerated material flows in the growing fashion online trade. Hanging textiles as well as flat goods up to accessories and shoes are efficiently stored, sorted and buffered in a system with automatically fillable and emptyable hanging bags. In addition, it meets the increasing requirements for economical returns management. In the fashion sector, for example, almost every second order is returned to the retailer. That’s one thing above all else: expensive. Thanks to the automation solution, returns no longer have to be laboriously returned to the warehouse, but “parked” in the system between. After all, only ten percent of returns are really unusable, 80 percent are reordered within three days. In total, the pocket sorting system processes up to 7,500 returns per hour and thus handles enormous quantities. Thanks to Dematic’s innovation, up to 70,000 articles rotate constantly in the returns store at the C&A warehouse in Langenhausen, waiting for their second chance.

Since its humble beginnings in Illinois, the mail order business has made great strides. In a mobile and networked society, there are no longer weeks of waiting, but e-commerce in real time: An order that is received today in the adidas online shop in Paris is passed on to partner Zalando, processed in a few minutes in a state-of-the-art distribution centre and reaches the customer on the same day.

From these beginnings until today, entrepreneurs such as the Norwegian Christen Ager-Hanssen or series founder Jan Beckers have used the entire keyboard of e-commerce to implement successful projects.