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Peak management at its best: Behind the scenes on Singles’ Day

Enormous workforce: for this year’s Singles’ Day, DB Schenker in China operated with a total staff of 3,000. Photos: Kai Hartmann


Looking out from the mezzanine onto the action below, two colors dominate: the light brown of countless cartons that fill the warehouse to the last nook. And in among the boxes, the signal red of the safety vests worn by the hundreds of workers. They were deployed here, in the city of Kunshan, not far from Shanghai, China’s largest metropolis. Their tasks include taking goods out of large cartons with nimble fingers, for example, and then putting them into smaller cartons just as swiftly, applying shipping labels to the boxes and getting them ready to be loaded into trucks. What we are witnessing is peak management “made by DB Schenker” on the occasion of Singles’ Day 2019, the world’s biggest online shopping event!

 

As the story goes, it was students in the Chinese city of Nanjing who declared 11/11 as Singles’ Day back in the 1990s. To honor all the people without partners – symbolized by the four “ones” making up the date. The students’ action hit a nerve among young people in China. As the popularity of the event increased, so did the number of companies using the opportunity to encourage this increasingly affluent stratum of the population to buy at discounts, especially via the web.

 

From these early beginnings, today’s superlative spectacle developed over the course of just a few years. Today, vendors in major consumer markets such as the United States and Germany are likewise participating. Nevertheless, Singles’ Day continues to be mainly a Chinese phenomenon. From baby diapers and cosmetics to high-end smartphones: in 2019, goods worth almost 65 billion U.S. dollars in total were ordered via China’s two biggest online trading platforms Alibaba and JD.com alone.

 

These figures were confirmed shortly after Singles’ Day concluded, while the “logistics NewsFeed” team was still at the warehouse in Kunshan. This is because all the online orders are placed within 24 hours, allowing the vendors to tally their sales very quickly. And then all the orders are processed over the next five days. Five very exhausting days, one might add: “We work in multiple shifts around the clock,” says Ansson Zhou, a DB Schenker manager for many years, as he watches the hustle and bustle inside the warehouse together with the photographer.

“A major challenge”: HR manager Ansson Zhou, who was responsible for hiring and training a large number of temporary workers. Photos: Kai Hartmann

DB Schenker demonstrates the efficiency of the company’s e-commerce contract logistics not only here in this warehouse. For Singles’ Day 2019, the provider operates in six different logistics centers, all located in the Shanghai metropolitan area, on behalf of five customers, including a major online retailer, as well as vendors of fashion articles and watches. And the 3,000 staff members give absolutely everything in their effort to process the total of 2.5 million orders. In addition to receiving and temporarily storing the goods in the run-up, the teams are also responsible for order picking, sorting, packing, labeling and dispatching during the peak phase.

 

Ansson Zhou himself plays a major role in ensuring that everything runs smoothly. In his role as Human Resources Manager Region East, he is responsible for hiring and training a sufficient number of temporary workers in time for Singles’ Day. “It is a major challenge, one that comes round every year,” says Ansson Zhou, who has been involved in DB Schenker’s annual Singles’ Day campaign since 2014.

 

Preparations get under way as early as half a year before Singles’ Day. They include strategic considerations such as the volume forecasts provided by customers, and the design of the solution based on these forecasts, but there are also hands-on tasks such as organizing additional packaging tables and forklift trucks. Then there are the multiple simulations of logistics processes, to ensure that all systems will run smoothly when things get really serious.

 

It is a big effort – and it is entirely justified: after all, it is not only the customers who rely on the performance of the contract logistics service provider, but also the consumers in every region in China awaiting the goods they ordered during the online shopping bonanza. Ansson Zhou believes Singles’ Day will continue to grow in size and importance in coming years. “The total volume may not increase all that much, but more and more brands will be joining in the event.” The manager has long since joined the party himself: “Singles’ Day is always a good shopping opportunity!”

Enormous tonnage: in six logistics centers located in the greater Shanghai metropolitan region, among them the one shown here in Kunshan, DB Schenker handled a total of 2.5 million orders during and immediately after this year’s Singles’ Day. Photos: Kai Hartmann

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