It’s almost hard to believe that two years have passed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its merciless impacts on the supply chain, consumer behavior and how the world conducts business as usual. There is really nothing “usual” about conducting business nowadays, particularly for fulfillment operations in a myriad of sectors now saturating the e-commerce market.
The fact of the matter is that e-commerce is no longer just thought of for a holiday list or bargain deal that cannot be found in traditional brick-and-mortar shops. E-commerce is becoming more of a first option for some and a permanent solution for others. Grocers, retailers, department stores and beyond are feeling the full effect of the e-commerce trend and despite the pandemic, it could very well be here to stay.
So, how does this change the way fulfillment providers conduct operations? According to KPI Solutions’ Brittain Ladd, micro fulfillment is the key to capturing lost dollars and keeping up with demand.
“About 20% of all sales today are direct-to-consumer,” Ladd shares. “Prior to the pandemic, only about 3% of grocery sales were online. And only about 6% of all retail sales were online prior to the pandemic, so we’ve seen a massive shift. Grocery retailers and retailers of general merchandise had to change their business models to keep up with direct-to-consumer demand.”
Ladd serves as the chief supply chain and marketing officer with Kuecker Pulse Integration (KPI) in addition to his position as a Forbes Councils member. KPI Solutions is the result of an integrated partnership between Kuecker Logistics Group Inc., PULSE Integration and QC Software. Known best for bringing system integration and robotics automation to a variety of sectors, KPI Solutions approaches fulfillment operations uniquely by implementing and innovating their own software to meet demand.
“KPI Solutions has partnerships with leading robotics companies, and we can install basically any system that exists,” Ladd says. “We work with some of the largest global companies to help them automate their fulfillment and sharpen their strategy to identify more cost effective and innovative ways to meet customer demand. Consumers want more speed, especially now, and a lot of analysts are confused because they fail to realize that the goal isn’t to just deliver groceries in 10 to 15 minutes, it’s to deliver apparel, shoes, electronics and other products as well.”
So, where does micro fulfillment fit? And more importantly, how can it support fulfillment operations now and in the future? Let’s start by understanding how companies–such as grocers—a re struggling beyond the surge in e-commerce. Ladd shares that contrary to the widely held belief, grocers are suffering significantly with e-commerce, as they not only spend more to fulfill these orders, but they must keep up with the labor involved in third-party services, which further complicates the process.
Keep in mind, grocery retailers are now faced with a new wave of demand and speed. Ladd shares that companies in Europe that have entered the U.S. market, such as Buyk and Jokr, are now offering “rapid grocery delivery” in as little as 10 minutes.
“On average, grocery retailers lose anywhere from $7 to $15 on every online order they fulfill,” Ladd says. “And in some cases, they can lose as much as $25 on every online order they fulfill. Most retailers barely break even on any of their curbside pickup orders, except for the product since it’s a little higher value.
“Imagine being a retailer who is now forced into a model where they’re having to change everything they do to meet the changing demands of consumers, but everything the consumer wants them to do the retailer loses money on. That’s the challenge.”
That’s also where micro fulfillment centers and technology can not only capture these costs but turnaround the way e-commerce fulfillment is streamlined.
Geek+, Berkshire Grey, AutoStore, and Addverb Technologies are a few of the companies that are innovating fulfillment operations through automated robotic systems. These fully automated systems reduce the chances for human errors with mobility and capability of reaching inside inventory bins quite literally to fulfill orders. Ladd shares that most of these automated solutions cost around $1.2 million to $1.5 million with a return on investment realized within 18 to 24 months, paying for themselves while re-inventing fulfillment.
“The best way I can describe it is like holding a Rubik’s cube in front of you,” Ladd says. “Each of the cubes has some type of inventory inside and sitting on top of the Rubik’s cube are robots that go back and forth and side to side reaching down and picking up these cubes and moving them from one side to another, pulling out inventory. That’s exactly what they do as a robotic picking and fulfillment system.”
Embracing technology is what comes full circle for retailers attempting to overcome the e-commerce surge. And options such as these not only fully automate fulfillment processes but keep human involvement to a minimum. Retailers are catching on and the U.S. market is now starting to see what the European market has already adopted. In fact, Ladd shared that three European companies have recently entered New York City, and they are bringing exploding growth with them.
What makes these systems even more enticing (beyond the fact that they are fully automated) is the ability to operate after-hours–or in the dark when stores are closed. Micro fulfillment centers are intelligent enough to automate the fulfillment process, but small enough that grocery retailers can install them inside their stores–completing all of the fulfillment tasks and mileage usually completed by employees.
“These systems are quite easy for retailers to embrace and adopt,” Ladd says. “Companies including Kroger, H-E-B, Albertson’s, Instacart and DoorDash are among the more recognized brands that are exploring these innovative options and either installing these systems or exploring how to use these systems. Make no mistake, the future of retail is robotics. Retailers that don’t embrace robotics will never be able to survive long term.”
Brittain Ladd, chief supply chain and marketing officer with KPI Solutions, is recognized as a leading expert in business strategy, supply chain management, logistics and last-mile delivery. He was one of the first individuals to research, design and recommend that retailers install micro-fulfillment centers in their stores and chains.