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Posts Tagged ‘Amazon’

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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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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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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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There have been several things written over the last couple of years about working conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) Now we have a BBC report complete with hidden-camera video of what it is like inside a fulfillment center.

If you prefer to read, you can also check out “Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’” (Nov 25).

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About a year ago, we had a post on Amazon Lockers — the Seattle firm’s attempt to solve recurring last mile problems. Customers could have their purchases delivered to a secure, nearby location. No need to sign for a package; no need to worry about someone walking off with your box. You just need to enter a code to pop open the locker that has your stuff.

But there is an obvious complication here: Those lockers have to go somewhere. Amazon’s plan was not to buy real estate but to plant them in existing retail locations. But which stores would benefit from hosting Amazon lockers? That is the question that a recent Businessweek article examines (Do Amazon’s Lockers Help Retailers? Depends on What They Sell, Sep 20).

The incentive for any business hosting an Amazon locker isn’t the monthly stipend the online retailer pays—”not even worth it,” says the manager of a Manhattan copy shop—but the lure of higher store traffic given the online retailer’s enormous sales volume and the gazillions of brown boxes sent across the nation each day.

Amazon has the lockers in nine large metro areas and touts the delivery option as a customer convenience for the many people who can’t reliably get their online purchases at work or at home. For a bricks-and-mortar business, the idea is that people coming to collect their Amazon purchases will buy other stuff on their way out the door.

So do people buy other stuff? (more…)

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How should Wal-Mart fill web orders? That seems like a straightforward question. And, given that Wal-Mart sold over $7 billion of stuff on the web last year, you would think they would have figured that out by now. Still as the Wall Street Journal tells it, the retail giant is still working through how best to fill orders (Wal-Mart’s E-Stumble With Amazon, Jun 19).

E-commerce at Wal-Mart is run as a distinct business, with its own headquarters, CEO and merchants who buy items specifically for the website. Every year, executives would start a “five-year planning exercise, but the plans were never executed and management would say the sales weren’t there to justify the investment capital,” says a former online-division executive. “Even now e-commerce is a rounding error in the U.S. market.” Wal-Mart said it expects $10 billion in online sales this year, which would amount to about 2% of its $469 billion in annual revenue.

As Wal-Mart’s online orders grew, it turned to makeshift spaces carved out of store-serving distribution centers and third-party warehouse operators to help handle the load. The extra layer added to its costs. Wal-Mart’s online shipping can cost $5 to $7 per parcel, while Amazon averages $3 to $4 per parcel, analysts say—a big difference considering some of Wal-Mart’s popular purchases are low-cost items like $10 packs of underwear.

As the quotes make clear, this is all about how to match Amazon  so Wal-Mart remains relevant as more transactions move on-line. To put the challenge in perspective, check out this graphic of Amazon’s distribution network.

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