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Woolworths CIO John Hunt on Tuesday described fulfilling online orders during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the first two months, as like “Christmas Eve volumes every single day”.

Speaking during the virtual Fujitsu ActivateNow 2021 event, Hunt highlighted the challenge that came with fulfilling online grocery orders had nothing to do with not having enough technology capacity to handle the order volumes, but rather enough staff to complete those orders. Over 80% of online orders are still manually handpicked in-store by staff, according to Hunt.

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This was despite the business saying in August that “technical issues” were to blame for the business’ online ordering system going down, which left customers unable to place any new online orders for about three hours.  

“Happily, from a pure technology perspective, it was not too much of a challenge in that I think we could ramp up from a tech infrastructure capacity capability … I think enabling our team has been more of a challenge, particularly around online in terms of pure volumes,” he said.

“The technology could take 10 times, 20 times more orders, but to fulfil those orders has been a challenge, so we’ve had to think on our feet in the way we ramp up or picking capability.”

To assist staff with picking orders, Woolworths rolled out “huge amounts” of Fujitsu RF devices to its stores and central fulfilment centres, Hunt said.

In October last year, the Australian grocery giant deployed its first micro-automation technology in the e-commerce facility located at the back of its existing Melbourne-based Carrum Downs supermarket.

The technology was designed to sort and move up to 10,000 grocery products from automated storage units to team members that are handpicking customer orders.

Woolworths Group CEO Brad Banducci, at the time, touted automating the picking of products would help dispatch five times the online order volume of a standard Woolworths store.

This was followed by an announcement about Woolworths’ plan to deliver its first automated online fulfilment centre in Auburn, New South Wales to further speed up home delivery orders. Subject to state government approval, the retailer boasted the new centre would feature automation technology from Knapp that will help Woolworths’ personal shoppers pick and dispatch up to 50,000 home deliveries a week in Western Sydney.

For the 2021 financial year, Woolworths reported group ecommerce sales jumped 58% to AU$5.6 billion, with its Australian food ecommerce sales delivered through WooliesX, the digital arm of the business, increasing by 75% from AU$2 billion to AU$3.5 billion.

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