Many years ago, I worked as an office assistant in my college dorm. One of the responsibilities was letting residents know if they had received a UPS package. Anything sent via regular mail went to the campus post office where we were all assigned a box. Since UPS couldn’t deliver to the post office box, it came to the dorm where someone would get around to writing out a paper form so the student could be notified. It wasn’t a particularly efficient process, but once you got past the start of the school year, there weren’t too many packages to deal with.
But times have changed! The Daily Campus (of the University of Connecticut) reports that UConn’s mailrooms are getting overwhelmed (Mailroom backup continues as officials search for solutions, Oct 5).
The number of packages received by the university for residential students has been increasing drastically in recent years, in large part due to the rise in online purchases, Assistant Director of Building Services Tracy, told The Daily Campus in an earlier article. As a result, there is a growing need to find long-term solutions beyond hiring more staff.
According to Cree, more than 100 student workers are involved in work related to the residential mailrooms.
In order to fix some immediate problems, plans have been made to modify existing mailrooms in the next few weeks. These alterations are intended to allow packages to be processed much more efficiently. …
In addition to these immediate changes that are to be put in place, UConn is also considering other ways to efficiently deal with the influx of packages and alter the current infrastructure to better reflect the needs of students. …
“We have been discussing the possibility of creating central locations for sorting, but also discussing distribution systems to get the packages delivered sooner,” [executive director of Building Services Logan] Trimble said.
The earlier article referenced above claims that UConn is receiving 3,000 packages per day. The Business Insider article on UConn’s mailroom woes notes that the school has about 31,000 students. Some of those presumably live off campus and have their Amazon sent to their apartments so we are probably looking at over 10% of on-campus students getting packages every day. I am glad my dorm assistant days are behind.
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What’s your address? For most readers of this blog, that is a pretty easy question to answer. You have a street name and a unique number. Throw in a postal code and maybe an apartment number, and you are good to go. For much of the world’s population, however, things aren’t so easy. Whether because they live in rural villages or poorly planned, rapidly growing cities, many people in developing nations don’t have a standard address. This creates a variety of problems. In particular, it cuts them off from many parts of modern commerce. How do you deliver a package to someone who can’t easily write down where they live? Note that this matters for a developing nation. If a country has an under-developed retail market, fostering an e-commerce industry is likely a better solution for many products than building out physical locations — but that cannot happen without some way of locating customers.
Solving this addressing problem is the goal of what3words, a start-up firm profiled in a recent BBC article (Giving everyone in the world an address, Apr 30). Their plan is to match every three-meter-by-three-meter square on the globe with a three-word triplet. Under this scheme, the house I grew up in becomes collapsed.networking.farm — which would only be better if it were collapsed.networking.firm.
The argument is that it is easier to remember three words than, say, a set of random numbers. The goal then is to come up with words that are simple and unambiguous to use. Here is how their website explains the process.
Each what3words language is powered by a wordlist of 25,000 dictionary words. The wordlists go through multiple automated and human processes before being sorted by an algorithm that takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling and pronunciation.
Offensive words and homophones (sale & sail) have been removed. Simpler, more common words are allocated to more populated areas and the longest words are used in 3 word addresses in unpopulated areas.
How does this play out in practice? (more…)
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About a year ago, we had a post on Zulily and how they managed their order fulfillment. It featured a nifty graphic from the Wall Street Journal showing just how much longer their delivery times were relative to other interet retailers. Now, the Journal has another story — with a spiffy updated graphic — discussing how their delivery times have gotten even worse (Zulily Nips Business Model in the Bud, Mar 23).
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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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