A challenge faced by vendors that wish to introduce new technology into the grocery industry is that many grocery retailers are risk averse. Instead of jumping at the chance to embrace new technology, most retailers take a ‘wait and see’ approach. Specifically, grocery retailers wait to see what Amazon and Walmart will do. This has been especially true regarding the topic of micro-fulfillment. Although the use of micro-fulfillment centers within a retailers grocery ecosystem makes operational and financial sense, most grocery retailers have sat on the sidelines.

That has changed as a result of the announcement by Walmart that it is going to install micro-fulfillment centers in an undisclosed number of stores. Walmart will install solutions from Alert Innovation, Fabric and Dematic.

Walmart indicated that they are still in the testing and evaluation phase and that they have not identified the optimal solution. (You can read more about the different micro-fulfillment systems on the market here).

I have proposed the use of micro-fulfillment centers inside retail stores, in buildings next to retail stores, or in offsite ‘Dark Stores’. Micro-fulfillment is a must-have for retailers. However, let me be clear, micro-fulfillment isn’t just technology a retailer can purchase and install. Micro-fulfillment is a strategy retailers can leverage to reduce costs and complexity related to fulfilling online and curbside grocery orders, create a competitive advantage, and enable growth.

Most retailers that choose to leverage micro-fulfillment as part of their strategy have entered into direct arrangements with specific micro-fulfillment vendors. For example, H.E.B entered into an agreement with AutoStore. I rank AutoStore at the top of the list for micro-fulfillment. (Dematic will probably introduce the AutoStore system at Walmart; something I strongly recommend).

Is a direct relationship with a vendor the optimal choice? Is there another option retailers can choose? Yes, there is.

Micro-fulfillment as a Service (MaaS)

I prefer retailers to purchase and install micro-fulfillment centers across their ecosystems. I believe owning and operating MFCs is a wise move strategically for retailers.

However, retailers that don’t want to own and operate MFCs have the option to utilize Micro-fulfillment as a Service (MaaS). MaaS is a service that a few MFC companies are offering to retailers. Fabric has done a great job of marketing MaaS to potential customers.

At a high level, MaaS is a service whereby an MFC company will purchase or lease a building to install micro-fulfillment centers. An MFC company can also install one or more micro-fulfillment centers onsite in a company owned facility.

Once installed, the MFC company will provide the required labor (or use a 3rd party) to run the facility. Customers that sign up for MaaS ship their inventory to a MaaS location where the inventory is either stored or immediately placed inside an MFC. Retailers will have little to no upfront costs to leverage MaaS. The MFC company will fulfill orders for their customers. On average, the MFC company running the MaaS location will charge between $.58 to $.60 per line picked.

Sounds like a great deal!! It’s not. MaaS is nearly impossible to justify due to high operational costs. On average, grocery retailers can lose up to $25 on every online order they fulfill. MaaS reduces the cost of fulfilling online orders but not as much if a retailer operates their own micro-fulfillment centers.

Based on analysis completed by several strategy consulting firms, and based on my own analysis, the MFC companies offering MaaS have greatly underpriced their services. In addition, the projected order volumes that can be filled using a MaaS model will be difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill because of limitations within the MFC systems being used by the companies I evaluated.

Regardless of the limitations, I expect MaaS to grow in popularity for these reasons: Executives at some retailers will be very risk averse. To minimize risk, they will choose to essentially outsource micro-fulfillment. I know of several grocery retailers that are in the process of evaluating micro-fulfillment systems. A few of the retailers are leaning towards using MaaS as a way to reduce capital spend and mitigate risk.

Recommendations

Using real world examples, this is what I recommend all grocery retailers that are interested in MaaS to do.

Albertsons is one of the leading grocery retailers in the United States. The company is led by CEO Vivek Sankaran, former President and COO of Frito-Lay North America. I believe Vivek should be considered one of the best CEOs working today. I have written multiple articles about Albertsons and I have publicly stated that Albertsons should merge with Ahold-Delhaize. If the merger occurs, it would create the largest grocery retail conglomerate in the United States, and one of the largest in the world.

Based on announcements from Albertsons, the company is evaluating options for micro-fulfillment. Albertsons has a relationship with the MFC company, Takeoff Technologies. (I am a former advisor to Takeoff and Fabric).

Full disclosure: I have had multiple discussions with executives from Albertsons regarding the topic of micro-fulfillment. I also advised executives from H.E.B, Ahold-Delhaize, Publix, Amazon and Walmart on the topic of micro-fulfillment. However, I do not work for a micro-fulfillment company. I work for a system integrator, PULSE Integration, that has relationships with several MFC companies. I also write articles on the topic of micro-fulfillment.

I applaud Albertsons focus on micro-fulfillment. However, what should Albertsons do?

In my professional opinion, I recommend that Albertsons purchase and install MFC systems from AutoStore. If there is resistance within Albertsons for such a model, Albertsons should evaluate MaaS as an option. However, instead of only testing MaaS as a solution with one MFC company, I encourage Vivek Sankaran to speak with AutoStore, and negotiate an agreement whereby AutoStore will operate one to three MaaS locations for Albertsons.

AutoStore hasn’t embraced MaaS due to analysis they have performed that indicates MaaS is a higher cost and lower value option for grocery retailers than grocery retailers owning and operating their own micro-fulfillment centers. However, I believe AutoStore has no choice but to offer a MaaS solution due to growing interest in the topic. I strongly encourage AutoStore to partner with Albertsons.

Sankaran should also have one to three AutoStore MFCs installed within their grocery ecosystem, including installing an AutoStore inside a grocery store, to test which MFC performs the best. Sankaran can compare the results of MaaS and a company owned and operated MFC model at the end of one year. May the best MFC solution win.

In addition to micro-fulfillment, I strongly encourage Albertsons (and all retailers) to test the use of last mile delivery carts from the company Tortoise, and testing mobile retail using vans from Robomart. Both companies are generating a lot of interest from retailers. (I am an advisor to both companies).

Finally, I recommend that Albertson (and all grocery retailers) to improve the customer experience for online grocery delivery by providing their customers with a DynoSafe or a similar product. This article outlines the importance grocery retailers “winning the porch.”

Publix, Kroger, Ulta Beauty, Sephora, Macy’s, owners of malls, convenience store chains, and large retail development companies should also test MaaS and operating MFCs within their retail ecosystems.

What’s Next for Micro-fulfillment? 

I am convinced that Instacart will invest heavily in micro-fulfillment centers starting in 2021; probably with Fabric. Instacart will go public in 2021. By 2022, 80 to 100 micro-fulfillment centers will be dedicated to Instacart’s needs. By 2025, Instacart will become an online grocery retailer fulfilling orders direct to their customers. Instacart will end their relationship with their current customers. I anticipate that Instacart will open Instacart-branded stores in select locations. If I’m correct, Instacart should acquire Fabric in 2021. (Instacart is in an interesting position. I recommend Shopify, Google or Facebook to acquire Instacart).

Amazon is investing heavily in micro-fulfillment. I anticipate that Amazon will soon unveil a 20,000 square feet MFC built inside one of their AmazonFresh branded stores. I’m convinced that Amazon has no choice but to explore the use of Nano-fulfillment centers inside Whole Foods stores. I designed one of the first micro-fulfillment centers specific to the needs of Amazon. You can read about it here.

Amazon is creating a business model whereby they will sell more groceries through their Amazon branded stores than through Whole Foods. Why? Because Amazon is going to sell branded CPG and organic products inside its supermarkets. When Amazon acquired Whole Foods, I stressed to Amazon that they should introduce branded CPG products at Whole Foods to increase customers. The stores could be re-branded to ‘Whole Foods Plus.’ Amazon didn’t introduce branded CPG products at Whole Foods and sales have stagnated.

An argument can be made that Amazon should divest Whole Foods and focus on its own AmazonFresh brand. Target is the company that should acquire Whole Foods. Target can open Whole Foods Markets inside its stores. I have recommended to Amazon on several occasions to acquire Target and also open Whole Foods Markets inside Target’s stores. Since the acquisition hasn’t occurred, I’m skeptical that it ever will. If Amazon is not going to acquire Target, divesting Whole Foods should be explored.

Amazon and Kohl’s are piloting an AmazonFresh store inside a Kohl’s store; this is something that I recommended to Kohl’s and Amazon over two years ago so I’m glad that pilot has begun. If the pilot is successful, I recommend that Amazon should acquire Kohl’s.

DoorDash, Postmates and other restaurant delivery companies must expand into delivering groceries. I strongly recommend that these companies should invest in opening their own micro-fulfillment centers powered by AutoStore or some other MFC system. Grocery retailers are actively looking for a replacement for Instacart. Postmates, for example, could open MFCs; receive inventory from grocery retailers; store the inventory inside each MFC system; fulfill online and curbside orders; and use their own delivery drivers to deliver orders.

I also believe that restaurant delivery companies that partner with grocery retailers should teach their grocery retail customers how to open dark kitchens and offer their own branded meals.

Micro-fulfillment is going to grow in popularity. Every retailer needs to ask and answer this question: What is our micro-fulfillment strategy?

For more information on micro-fulfillment, you can read articles located here and here.

Read more articles like this from PULSE’s Chief Marketing Officer Brittain Ladd