While much of the consumer world shut down in 2020, the behind-the-scenes logistics industry was busier than ever as online shopping soared, products flew off shelves, and consumers needed increasing numbers of products delivered directly to their homes. This year’s most innovative logistics companies offered clever solutions to the numerous, unforeseeable problems of moving product in 2020—from managing returns by mail, to reallocating trucking contracts from lagging to busy businesses, to helping small companies ship product as quickly as Amazon Prime. While much of the world paused, these companies kept our essential goods moving quickly and safely.
For refurbishing and recycling returned merchandise, and saving money (and the planet) in the process
“Reverse logistics” company goTRG specializes in helping retailers including Walmart, Lowe’s, and Lenovo reshelve, reclaim, and repurpose returned inventory. goTRG’s Returns Automated Disposition (RAD) software helps employees instantly determine whether it’s most profitable to reshelve returned items or put them into goTRG’s resale stream, where they can be fixed and resold on marketplaces, or salvaged for parts and recycled. In 2020, the company launched several dedicated TV refurbishment centers at a major US retailer, redirecting hundreds of thousands of units out of landfills and into resale streams.
For bringing business buyers together for better deals on purchase orders
Business Spend Management platform Coupa connects business buyers in industries such as consumer packaged goods, healthcare, manufacturing, food and beverage, and more to suppliers. Its new offering, Source Together, allows buyers seeking the same products to band together on “community sourcing events” to collectively choose, bid on, and award contracts, reducing their rates and providing suppliers with larger orders.
For retooling its customer-service platform to help retailers navigate returns, pickups, and shipping as stores shut down
Narvar’s simple customer service interface helps brands including Levi Strauss, Gap, Everlane, and Home Depot digitize merchandise returns and exchanges. In response to the pandemic, Narvar rapidly rolled out solutions for companies facing store shutdowns, including returning in-store purchases through the mail, pivoting stores to ship merchandise, facilitating buy-online-pickup-curbside options, and expanding paperless returns (using a QR code) to all three major U.S. mail carriers. The company also offered its Simple Returns portal for free to any retailer that needed it, beginning in April.
4. Vecna Robotics
For orchestrating autonomous robots and their human coworkers on one, seamless system
Vecna Robotics’ autonomous mobile robots help distribution centers, warehouses, and manufacturers including FedEx Ground streamline their operations and materials handling. With the release of Pivotal, a “multi-agent AI-based orchestration engine,” the company introduced the ability for clients to quickly and effectively coordinate and delegate work for both human and robot workers, reportedly helping clients double throughput.
For freeing up workers’ hands with ergonomic, glove-mounted scanners
In 2020 wearable scanner company ProGlove released the Mark Display, a matchbox-sized scanner and screen that, via a glove, mounts on the back of warehouse workers’ hands for simple, lightweight scanning. The company estimates the solution reduces errors by 33%. During the pandemic, Proglove rolled out Proximity for all its devices, a feature that alerts users when they’re standing too close together.
For facilitating peer-to-peer fulfillment between small businesses across the country
Startup Cahoot helps small and medium businesses compete with mega-retailers on shipping by trading space in each other’s storage and acting as fulfillment centers for each other. Cahoot’s Shipping Label Solution helps members analyze all combinations of fulfillment location, shipping distance, and cost to surface the cheapest way to get product to customers on time. This year it grew to more than 100 peer-to-peer merchants, and and moved more than $300 million in product.
For migrating old trucking contracts onto a new digital, data-driven platform
While trucking is traditionally contracted by shippers on a yearly basis, Breakthrough’s Network Intelligence system (launched in 2020) allows shippers to dynamically engage with their contract carriers, adding or removing partners as needed. The company’s dashboard houses thousands of data points about trucking companies, allowing clients to evaluate potential partners based on cost, speed, or quantity, and surfacing AI recommendations based on their priorities. During the pandemic, the dynamic solution helped seamlessly shift trucks from slowed businesses to carriers experiencing a pandemic demand bump.
For arming direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies with tools and facilities to ship worldwide, fast
ShipBob fulfills orders for more than 3,500 DTC merchants. In 2020, the company expanded to international fulfillment centers, added free analytics tools to estimate shipping times and costs, and introduced new integrations with Loop, Shopify, Squarespace, and eBay. A new integration with Google also allows merchants to list estimated shipping times into Google Ads, helping them compete with guaranteed shipping services like Amazon Prime.
For replacing environmentally taxing shipping materials with paper alternatives
Forty-nine-year-old shipping materials company Ranpak was thinking about sustainable shipping well before it was cool. In 2020, it introduced three paper-based solutions to its suite of eco-friendly shipping products: AccuFill, an automated system for cushioning packages that ensures just enough paper filler is used to be effective; PadPak Guardian, a machine that quickly and easily pads light and heavy items with paper bundles; and FillPak Trident, a paper alternative to plastic packing pillows.
10. 3rd Stone Design
For keeping medical supplies cold, far off the grid
In May 2020, 3rd Stone Design was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Grand Challenges for its Stone Cold Systems for vaccine delivery. The battery-powered portable vaccine refrigerators, designed for deployment in low- and middle-income countries, keep medical products cold without the use of electricity, and can be remotely monitored for temperature and location. A field trial by a third-party NGO in Uganda found the platform to be effective in both rural and urban settings.