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Archive for the ‘eCommerce’ Category

So what should be more profitable for a retailer, selling from physical stores or selling over the web? That’s the question that a recent Wall Street Journal article considers (How the Web Drags on Some Retailers, Dec 1). At first glance, the answer seems straightforward. Web sellers don’t need to rent stores or have staff cooling their heels waiting for customers. However, the reality isn’t necessarily so clear,

While conventional wisdom holds that online sales should be more profitable, because websites don’t need the pricey real estate and labor necessary to maintain a store network, many retailers actually earn less or even lose money online after factoring in the cost of shipping, handling and higher rates of returns.

For retailers that outsource their Web and fulfillment operations, costs can run as high as 25% of sales, industry analysts said.

Kohl’s Corp. says its profitability online is less than half what it reaps in its store. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it expects to lose money online at least through early 2016 as it invests to build its technology, infrastructure and fulfillment networks. Target Corp. says its margins will shrink as its online sales grow. Best Buy Co. said faster growth on its website will weigh on its profitability at the end of the year.

Click here for a video of the reporter discussing her findings.

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We have posted a few times about how miserable it can be to work in an Amazon fulfillment center. (See for example here.) We have also had a few posts on Kiva robots — both before and after Amazon bought the company in 2012. Kiva produces automation systems for fulfillment centers. These are essentially robots that bring shelves to pickers who select what is needed to complete customer orders. At the time Amazon bought them, Kiva’s clients were firms like Crate & Barrel that while significant catalog/web retailers had far less variety than Amazon. Indeed, one of our posts on Kiva was basically asking when the robot hordes were coming to a fulfillment center near you.

According to the Wall Street Journal, those hordes have now arrived (Amazon Robots Get Ready for Christmas, Nov 19). Back in May, CEO Jeff Bezos claimed that they would increase their number of robots from 1,400 to 10,000 over the year. What difference does this change make?

At a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in Tracy, Calif., about 60 miles east of San Francisco, Amazon this summer replaced four floors of fixed shelving with the robots, the people said.

Now, “pickers” at the facility stand in one place and wait for robots to bring four-foot-by-six-foot shelving units to them, sparing them what amounted to as much as 20 miles a day of walking through the warehouse. Employees at some robot-equipped warehouses are expected to pick and scan at least 300 items an hour, compared with 100 under the old system, current and former workers said.

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Shop on Amazon.com and you will find a lot of items sold by lots of different sellers. For many of those sellers, Amazon isn’t just handling acting as a store front; it is also handling the logistics of order fulfillment. Now suppose that Amazon has a particular product which both it and several third parties are selling out its warehouses. How should Amazon physically manage the inventory? Should it keep the inventory it is selling physically separate from that offered by third-party sellers? In many instances, Amazon chooses to do just the opposite, allowing for “stickerless, commingled inventory.” Here is an Amazon video explaining just what that means.

And here is how the Wall Street Journal explains the benefits of the program (Do You Know What’s Going in Your Amazon Shopping Cart?, May 11).

The system has enabled Amazon to make better use of its warehouse space and keep a wide variety of items in stock around the country. The idea is to give Amazon flexibility to ship certain products based on their proximity to customers, speeding delivery times. For third-party sellers, it saves them the trouble of having to label individual items sent to the Amazon warehouse.

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What should determine how much it costs to ship a box? Clearly the weight of the package matters as does the distance it travels. But what about its physical dimensions? Does it matter whether a one-pound object takes up a cubic foot of space or two cubic feet?

Apparently, FedEx thinks it matters and has announced that it will be tweaking its pricing policies accordingly (Web Shoppers Beware: FedEx to Charge by Package Size, Wall Street Journal, May 7).

Instead of charging by weight alone, all ground packages will now be priced according to size. In effect, that will mean a price increase on more than a third of its U.S. ground shipments. …

[The change] would likely greatly affect bulky but lighter weight items like toilet paper and diapers, which many people have delivered on a regular basis, as well as Zappos.com shoes, which ship for free, including free returns. Indeed, shoe shoppers are encouraged to buy multiple pairs, keep what fits and return the rest. Avid Web shoppers do the same with sweaters, dresses, and jackets at retailers like J. Crew, Banana Republic, and Macy’s.

This graphic gives an idea of the kind of price increases that are in play. Clearly items that are not very dense are going to be seeing a stiff price hike.

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The buzz in e-commerce has been all about speed. Firms from A to Z (or at least from Amazon to WalMart) have been trying to wring time from their distribution systems. Indeed, just yesterday Google announced it was expanding its Shopping Express same day delivery service. So what are we to make of Zulily, an e-tailer that routinely takes its sweet time to ship stuff?

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For those unfamiliar with the firm, the Wall Street Journal describe it as a “mom-focused discount site” (Zulily Customers Play the Waiting Game, May 5). Like Gilt or Rue La La, Zulily operates on a private sales model with goods being offered at a discount for a limited times to members only. The interesting thing is that their suspect shipping times actually seem to be a conscious, strategic choice. (more…)

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The last mile has long been the bugaboo of e-commerce. Getting stuff from a fulfillment center to a metropolitan area is relatively easy in comparison to putting a box on a particular doorstep. The former allows for scale and efficiency; the latter is necessarily at a smaller scale and requires coordinating lots of little details.

Now we have two stories on how Amazon is dealing with that tricky last stretch — one from the US and one from India. First up is Amazon’s effort to develop its own delivery capability in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York (Amazon, in Threat to UPS, Tries Its Own Deliveries, Wall Street Journal, Apr 24).

The new delivery efforts will get Amazon closer to a holy grail of e-commerce: Delivering goods the same day they are purchased, offering shoppers one less reason to go to physical stores. With its own trucks, Amazon could offer deliveries late at night, or at more specific times.

The move is a shot across the bow of United Parcel Service Inc., FedEx Corp. and the U.S. Postal Service, which now deliver the majority of Amazon packages. It is also a challenge to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., eBay Inc. and Google Inc., each of which is testing deliveries.

Ultimately, a delivery network could transform Amazon from an online retailer into a full-service logistics company that delivers packages for others, according to former Amazon executives. They caution that any such effort likely is years away.

So why should Amazon want to get into the business of schlepping stuff when there are multiple quite competent firms willing to do the heavy lifting for them?

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Gustin

One of my favorite topics to teach is the newsvendor problem, an inventory model for very short-lived products like newspapers and fashion goods. One of the points that gets made in that class is that variability is costly. Having to commit resources before knowing what will sell means risk and risk may be a reason not to be in the business. But that risk also suggests an opportunity: If one can find a way to reverse the order of things and commit resources only after knowing what will be demanded, then an otherwise unprofitable business can be a profitable one.

That is essentially the idea behind Gustin, a maker of high-end jeans. It initially sold its jeans trough boutiques, which bought jeans at a wholesale price near $80 but then marked them up to around $200. Gustin had to front all the cost of production and then wait for stuff to sell. Now, they have reversed the order of things and take orders directly from customers ahead of production. As the founders tell it on Marketplace, they have positioned themselves as a totally crowdsourced fashion company (Burning down the house that Levi’s built, Apr 8). You can hear the story here:

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