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Archive for the ‘Logistics’ Category

Have you ever thought about pallets? You know, those wood contraptions that can hold a pile of stuff off the floor while letting a forklift easily scoop up said pile? Here’s a snapshot of one that just happened to be lying around the Northwestern campus.

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So in many ways, there is nothing particularly special about pallets except that they play a key role in logistics and supply chains. They basically make schlepping stuff modular. What is actually stacked on the pallet doesn’t matter; a guy with a forklift can just pick it up and put it on or take it off a truck. Which is not to say that pallets are uninteresting. The people at Planet Money did a whole episode on pallets (Episode 545: The Blue Pallet, Jun 11) that makes for great listening. Here, check it out:

The key point is that there has in fact been innovation in the pallet market. What you see above is your basic stringer pallet. It consists of 15 pieces of wood and a bunch of nails. Note that with those three pieces of wood sandwiched between the other twelve, a forklift can only pick it up from two sides — either the front or back in the picture above. The alternative is to have a block pallet. A block pallet replaces that those three pieces of wood with nine blocks. Those blocks give extra spacing on the other two sides and a forklift can hoist the thing from any side. That additional flexibility increases efficiency. Go to a Costco. They have essentially mandated all their suppliers send stuff on block pallets. If you unload as many tractor trailers as Costco does, the productivity boost from block pallets really adds up. (more…)

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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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Given that it is Valentine’s Day, it seems appropriate to consider the supply chain for roses. So behold this wonderful graphic from Supply Chain 24/7 (The Logistics of Delivering Fresh Roses In Time for Valentine’s Day, Feb 13).

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Flexitanks

I keep an empty wine bottle from Chateau de La Rivière in my office. It says right on the front label “Mis en bouteille au chateau,” that is, that the wine was bottled at the winery. It turns out that at least in the British wine market bottling at the winery is becoming the exception, not the rule. According to the Financial Times, a large numbers of wines imported into the United Kingdom are now imported in plastic bladders (see the image above) and bottled in the UK (Crate expectations, Jan 31).

In the past few years there has been a huge structural change in how wine is delivered to those who drink it. The UK, for example, is the most important market for one of the world’s most enthusiastic wine exporters, Australia. In 2008, fewer than three in every 10 bottles of Australian wine on British shelves contained wine that had been shipped from Australia in bulk rather than in bottle. Four years later that figure was eight in every 10, and the total amount of wine shipped out of Australia in bulk overtook the volume exported in bottle.

Australia is far from the only country to ship substantial quantities of wine sloshing around in a tank inside a container rather than neatly sealed in bottles. Spain and Italy export far more wine in bulk than any non-European wine producer, and 65 per cent of all South African wine exports were bulk last year. (Chile is an enthusiastic exporter of bulk wine and earns the highest average price per litre for it.) According to the OIV, the global wine statistics-gatherer, the total volume of wine shipped around the world in bulk rose 61 per cent between 2005 and 2012 to represent more than 40 per cent of all exported wine.

So what is driving this rapid conversion from bottle to bulk? (more…)

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BN-BD558_patent_G_20140117133548Wayne Gretzky once said that one should skate to where the puck is going to be. Clay Christiansen used that as a hook for an HBR article and a management cliché was born. Now it seems that Amazon wants to apply that logic to shipping retail orders (Amazon Wants to Ship Your Package Before You Buy It, Wall Street Journal, Jan 17).

Amazon.com knows you so well it wants to ship your next package before you order it.

The Seattle retailer in December gained a patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping,” a method to start delivering packages even before customers click “buy.”

The technique could cut delivery time and discourage consumers from visiting physical stores. In the patent document, Amazon says delays between ordering and receiving purchases “may dissuade customers from buying items from online merchants.”

So Amazon says it may box and ship products it expects customers in a specific area will want – based on previous orders and other factors — but haven’t yet ordered. According to the patent, the packages could wait at the shippers’ hubs or on trucks until an order arrives.

The high production value diagram above (from the patent application) shows the various moving parts to be coordinated.

There is, of course, only one question to ask about this: Is anticipatory shipping crazier than planning to deliver packages via drones? (more…)

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Christmas is just a couple of days away and that means that UPS and other shippers are rushing to get every package and gift to its final destination. Just how much work does that take? Quite a bit. Businessweek reports that UPS starts planing for its peak season in the previous January (UPS’s Holiday Shipping Master: They Call Him Mr. Peak, Dec 19).

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We have had several stories over the last couple years about retailers using inventories at their stores to fill web orders. At one time or another, there have been stories about Nordstrom, Wal-Mart and Macy’s all treating that big box at the mall as a warehouse. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that even more chains — including Sears and Office Deport  — are hopping on the bandwagon (Retailers Turn Store Clerks Into Web Shippers, Dec 9). You can here the reporter discussing her findings here:

It is not surprising that more retailers are going this way. They are all facing pressure from on-line competitors and finding some way to utilize their existing physical network is appealing. If nothing else, I suspect that everyone in the C-suite wants to be able to tell the board they are trying something.

But how can you set up this up quickly? You need to develop a system that updates inventories in real time while dispatching staff to fetch what has been ordered and scheduling the shipper to pick stuff up. Nordstrom is often identified as the first mover on this. The New York Times reports that it took them a couple of years to get it set up. How can a Johnny-come-lately ramp this up quickly? By working with UPS and FedEx.

UPS and FedEx Corp. which were critical to helping launch the e-commerce boom, are now eager to help traditional retailers deal with it. They have engineered new strategies for jockeying inventory across the country to avoid overstocks and markdowns and to keep customers from defecting to Amazon, a big problem last year. The strategy is also important this holiday season as clothing retailers are threatened with heavy inventories.

UPS says it is working with about 40 retailers on implementing these strategies—about double the number a year ago. FedEx said these partnerships helped boost revenue in its ground delivery business 11% in its fiscal first quarter. Both forecast record holiday-season deliveries: UPS with 34 million packages on Dec. 16 and FedEx with 22 million packages on Cyber Monday.

In the case of Sears, UPS provided software that shows shipment statuses of all orders across the entire system. It also sends tracking numbers.

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