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There have been a handful of interesting article over the last week or two about online fulfillment centers. The first is from Bloomberg (Amazon’s Robot War Is Spreading, Apr 5) and discusses how many firms have followed Amazon’s lead and have invested in robots to help run their fulfillment centers. (Recall that Amazon bought Kiva, which we have discussed before.)

One interesting point made in the article is that the automation may not be quite what you think. For example, these robots are not reaching and grabbing items from the shelves (form something like that, see here). Rather, they are working with human pickers who load them up and then let the robot carry items from storage shelves to the packing area. That is, the robots takeover time-consuming schlepping so that humans can focus on identifying the right item on the shelves. Check out this video.

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Here is an interesting graph. It comes from Goldman Sachs by way of Quartz (A new generation of even faster fashion is leaving H&M and Zara in the dust, Apr 6).

It is showing that how sales growth relates to lead time. And while I am obliged to say that correlation is not causation, it seems pretty clear that it is good to be fast; firms with shorter lead times have distinctly higher sales growth.

The focus of the Quartz article is on Boohoo and Asos, two British web-based apparel retailers that target young shoppers. As seen in the chart, their recent performance has been smoking everyone — even Inditex, the parent of Zara. An obvious consideration here is that both Boohoo and Asos are younger, smaller firms so it is easier for them to generate rapid growth than older, larger firms. It also seems that at least Asos has done some things recently to juice its sales that are independent of its operational expertise. For example, the Financial Times reports that they took advantage of a week British pound following the Brexit vote to cut price in international markets (Asos cuts its cloth for growth but leaves less margin for error, Apr 4).

But it is still an interesting question of how a web-based retailer can benefit from its distribution structure to execute fast fashion faster.

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Escalators are back in the news! A little over a year ago, Transport for London (i.e., the London Tube) got some press for an experiment they ran essentially prohibiting people from walking up the escalators at one of their stations. (We posted about that here.) Now the New York Times has seen fit to revisit the topic (Why You Shouldn’t Walk on Escalators, Apr 4). The Times’ definitive stance has not gone unchallenged. Indeed, Gizmodo has an essay taking the opposite side (Why You Should Always Walk on Escalators, Apr 4).

The source of controversy here is that Transport for London found that escalators moved more people per hour and delays to get on the escalators were shorter when people were kept from walking up the stairs. This is obviously a paradox. From an individual point of view, walking up the stairs has to be faster. If each individual can move faster, how can the overall wait be worse?

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We have over the years had a number of posts on shipping containers but it’s not like the whole blog is about shipping containers.

But what about a whole podcast on shipping containers?

That now exists. You have to check out the podcast Containers! It is an eight part “audio documentary” on modern logistics. (There are currently five episodes posted.) I am selling it more than a little short in saying that it is just about shipping containers. It really looks at how innovations in moving freight by water have impacted supply chains, cities, and people. It is really fascinating.

Last week I posted on the challenges Starbucks was having with an increasing number of mobile orders. Now, it seems that the company is going to test a different approach: A location that only takes mobile orders (Starbucks to test mobile order and pay-only store at headquarters, Mar 30, Reuters).

Starbucks’ headquarters has two cafes that serve the more than 5,000 company employees who work there. One of those cafes, which is available only to company employees, is among its top three stores in the United States for mobile ordering.

Mobile orders from the building will be routed to the new store, which will have a large window where customers can pick up drinks and see them being made.

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In a perfect world, technology solves problems instead of creating them. Things don’t always go that way. Take, for example, Starbucks’ mobile ordering. This is, in theory, a convenience for users of their app. They can place an order before hitting the store, pay automatically, and get their drink and food without waiting in line.

Or at least that is the theory. The reality is that a surge in mobile orders has created a bunch of headaches for the coffee chain. Here are some details from when they announced their earnings at the end of January (Starbucks Tempers Revenue Forecast, Jan 26, Wall Street Journal).

Mobile order-and-pay represented 7% of U.S. company-operated transactions in the quarter, up from 3% in the prior year. The number of its highest-volume stores for mobile order-and-pay, where orders placed via the app account for more than 20% of transactions during peak hours, doubled to 1,200 stores over the prior quarter.

The high rate of mobile ordering was blamed by Starbucks for increased waits and with that lost customers. In the last quarter, dollar sales were up because the average purchase size outweighed a 2% decline in transaction.

But just how bad is the delay? That’s the subject of a recent Business Insider piece. The headline pretty much lays out the article’s agenda: We went to Starbucks every day for a week to see how the coffee giant is dealing with its biggest problem (March 19). Continue Reading »

Have you ever ordered a couch or arm-chair and waited an interminable amount of time for delivery? The usual reason why getting upholstered furniture often takes forever is the fabric. From the manufacturer’s point of view, the fabric is expensive, which would be tolerable if one could count on it moving through the process quickly. However, in the furniture world, you can’t count on that. Above a certain price point, nearly every manufacturer competes on offering lots of variety. Once you pick out a couch that’s the right size and sufficiently comfy, you get handed a book of fabric samples with literally hundreds of choices. Some — indeed, most — of those options are destined to be low runners, rarely chosen options that will appeal to only a very few customers. That creates problems for the manufacturer. Holding all of those options in inventory may just be too costly. A manufacturer may hold some of the more popular variants in inventory, but for the more esoteric choices, they will wait to order the fabric after getting an order for a couch.

But what if you could print the desired pattern for the couch on site?

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