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Archive for the ‘eCommerce’ Category

Whenever there are stories about Uber or TaskRabbit or any other “sharing economy” platform, the benefit of scheduling flexibility is inevitably mentioned. These firms may not offer their workers (more accurately, contractors) benefits or guarantees of employment, but they allow workers to craft a schedule that fits their own needs. Does granting such flexibility work in a more conventional setting?

Zappos, it seems, is out to answer that question with its call center workers (Zappos is bringing Uber-like surge pay to the workplace, Jan 28). Zappos’ incumbent system had call center agents signing up for their preferred shifts on paper once a quarter based on seniority. That obviously limits flexibility. Further, Zappos (not surprisingly) faces some predictable patterns in its call volume that are challenging to meet. For example, there is a spike on weekday mornings as people call from the East Coast — which is way early at Zappos’ Las Vegas call center. The solution? A bit of Uber-like surge pricing.

[CEO Tony] Hsieh was not available for an interview for this article, but as Goldstein recalls, he asked the Labs team, “‘How do you feel about looking at something like Uber for the call center?’ It was definitely not something we’d actively been thinking about,” Goldstein says.

That conversation sparked the development of what is now known as Open Market—referred to as “Om” internally—an online scheduling platform that allows workers to set discretionary hours and compensates them based on an Uber-esque surge-pricing payment model: hourly shifts with greater caller demand pay higher wages. The goal of Open Market was to create a “free-market system,” Goldstein says, and strike a balance between the rigidness of customer service center scheduling and what the company says is its dedication to giving employees time to pursue other opportunities at Zappos, like extra training. “We wanted the [customer service center employees] to work more flexible hours, eventually 100% flexible, and reward them based on how much or how little customers need them to work,” he says. …

Zappos limited the Open Market pilot to the 213 employees who work the customer service center’s phones. Everyone received at least 10% flexible time, so during a 40-hour week, employees would have four hours to play with. They could choose to not work during those hours or they could fulfill them whenever they liked by tacking them onto the start or end of a workday or by coming into the office on a scheduled day off.

Employees decided when to work with the help of Open Market’s real-time customer service center metrics algorithm and historical data that showed customer demand, as measured by the wait time of the longest-holding customer, and the accompanying compensation rates. The longer the hold time, the higher the customer demand, the more the employees working that shift would get paid.

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Today is a big day for companies in the shipping business. Coming off of the last weekend before Christmas, it is not too surprising that the likes of UPS and FedEx are expecting a massive rush of packages ordered by everyone who gave up on the mall and just ordered it online. In case you couldn’t have guess that for yourself, both the New York Times (Crunch Time for FedEx and UPS as Last-Minute Holiday Shipping Ramps Up, Dec 21) and the Wall Street Journal (A Test for UPS: One Day, 34 Million Packages, Dec 21)have articles today about how shippers have planned to deal with the deluge.

For my money, the Journal article is more interesting if only because it contains nuggets like that e-commerce will soon account for half of all U.S. packages. This video summarizes some of the main points of the article.

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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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