The Instacart Deception

The Instacart Deception

One of the most read and quoted books on military strategy and tactics is called The Art of War written by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, philosopher, and military strategist. One of Sun Tzu’s most famous observations is that “All warfare is based on deception.” I like the quote and I agree with the majority of the strategies proposed by Tzu.

The quote could also have been written to state the following, “All business is based on deception.” In fact, deception is a common practice in business. For example, Apple founder Steve Jobs hid the bugs that could have destroyed the reputation of the iPhone. To prepare for a demo of the iPhone in 2007, Jobs painstakingly identified how to demo the phone in a certain way that camouflage all of the bugs. It worked. The demo was a massive success.

I believe we are witnessing another executive and company practice the art of deception in plain sight, Apoorva Mehta and the company he founded, Instacart. Here’s why.

 

Instacart’s 20-Year Game 

A challenge faced by some executives, especially executives that run startups, is appearing more capable and intelligent than they really are. This isn’t a slam or criticism, it is a fact. I’ve interviewed dozens of executives that lead or work for startups and I’ve been able to get them to open up to me about their fears. The biggest fear I identified is the number of executives who had to accept that luck played a large role in their success and that sooner rather than later, the success or failure of the company would depend on their leadership abilities and business acumen. The executives were afraid because they weren’t leaders or skilled in business. Over 50% of the executives I interviewed went on to fail.

Apoorva Mehta legitimately deserves credit for recognizing the need for a company to fulfill online grocery orders and deliver them. Mehta worked very hard to get Instacart off the ground. However, many retail analysts recognize that Instacart not only benefitted from luck, but their growth can directly be traced to actions taken by others and events that haven’t occurred for over 100 years.

If Amazon hadn’t acquired Whole Foods, and if COVID hadn’t appeared, I wouldn’t be writing this article. The acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon scared the majority of grocery executives into thinking Amazon would soon take their customers. Instacart benefitted from the panicked executives who contracted Instacart to provide online grocery fulfillment and delivery.

Prior to COVID, only 3% of grocery sales were online. When COVID arrived, the need for online grocery fulfillment and delivery exploded. To the credit of Instacart’s executive team, they took full advantage of the opportunity to grow their business.

 

(Note: I continue to read articles or hear talking heads on news programs claim that COVID is a ‘Black Swan‘ event. This is false. The shift to agrarian life 10,000 years ago created communities that made epidemics and pandemics possible. The Black Swan event wasn’t COVID. The Black Swan event was that many countries voluntarily shut down their economies creating a global economic disaster).

Will Instacart continue to grow in a post-COVID world or will the luck run out? I believe Instacart will grow because Mehta and his executive team are already planning well into the future.

According to Mehta in a recent Forbes interview, he’s “playing a 20-year game.” Mehta also states that Instacart isn’t trying to take away customers from the grocery retailers they serve, and that Instacart has no plans to “ever sell groceries directly.” Is that true? Let’s turn to Sun Tzu for guidance on how to answer the question:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

If Mehta is playing a 20-year game, what then does the future hold for Instacart and it’s customers? Are we honestly to believe that the Instacart of today will look very similar to the Instacart in 2040 except for better analytics? Even though online grocery fulfillment will increase to become 50% or more of a retailers business, we are to believe that grocery retailers will be happy to turn over their customers and business to Instacart? Gosh, is Instacart going to run the grocery stores too in a mutually beneficial relationship with their retail partners where love and respect drives all?

Based on discussions I’ve had with numerous industry experts, retail analysts and individuals who work for Instacart, this is what customers of Instacart can expect in the coming years in my humble opinion.

Instacart will go public in 2021, 2022 at the latest.

I’ve been told by multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the matter that Instacart is actively engaged in discussions about opening micro-fulfillment centers (MFC). Fabric is one of the companies Instacart has spoken with about Micro-fulfillment as a Service. (Note to Instacart: Drop your insistence on technology exclusivity and acquire Fabric). Instacart has engaged in discussions with other MFC vendors according to executives I spoke with this.

Instacart will need a minimum of 50 MFC locations to begin with but the number of MFC facilities could eventually exceed several hundred. The challenge for Instacart will be convincing their retail customers to sign up for the service. Make no mistake – Instacart will convince a few customers to contract Instacart for fulfillment. When this happens, a flood of customers will follow. (I believe a partnership with AutoStore for Micro-fulfillment as a Service is the best strategy for Instacart to pursue. I don’t believe micro-fulfillment is enough. AutoStore is an ideal company to enable Instacart to become a fulfillment powerhouse).

Micro-fulfillment centers will allow Instacart to remove grocery fulfillment from the stores of their retail customers and reduce costs. This is actually a wise move and it is something I’ve recommended several times to Instacart. Grocery retailers can ship inventory to each Instacart MFC and leveraging technology from Fabric or other MFC vendors like Geek +, Attabotics, AutoStore, etc., online and curbside pickup orders can be automatically fulfilled using the MFC. Some products will continue to be picked by hand. Instacart will be able to reduce the costs associated with fulfilling orders significantly increasing their value to their grocery customers.

Micro-fulfillment centers will allow Instacart to expand their business model. According to Mehta, he wants to expand Instacart beyond supermarkets and has signed deals with Sephora, Best Buy, and 7-Eleven. Opening micro-fulfillment centers will allow Instacart to offer ‘Micro-fulfillment as a Service’ to fulfill online orders and replenish inventory rapidly in small format stores; like Sephora and 7-Eleven, for example.

Micro-fulfillment centers will also make it easier for Instacart to become an online grocery retailer and open their own physical stores. This is something I estimate will happen by 2025 at the latest. Grocery retailers pay Instacart an average 10% per order. In 2019, Instacart was losing $2.00 on every order they fulfilled. (Mehta claimed Instacart was profitable in 2019). In 2020, Instacart is grossing $3.00 per order. When COVID is tamed, which it will be, Instacart is going to again lose money or barely break even. Maintaining the status quo won’t work.

From a strategy perspective, the smartest move for Instacart is to continue to be deceptive about their future plans. Deception isn’t illegal. From the quote above, “When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away.” Instacart must continue to sign new grocery retailers and do everything they can to maintain their current retail customers. Why? Data. Instacart understands the value of data. Instacart also understands the value of convincing grocery retailers that allowing Instacart to maintain a list of their customer names, email addresses, physical addresses and other data is nothing to be concerned with.

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

If Instacart chooses to become an online retailer, they will easily convert customers from shopping at their favorite online retailer to shopping at Instacart. Why? Because Instacart owns the customer relationship. When Instacart launches their online grocery business, they will have the best pricing, assortment, promotions and the best advertising campaigns for brands. I warned grocery retailers in this 2018 article that if they contracted Instacart, they would be teaching an eventual Trojan Horse their strengths and weaknesses. I was right.

Instacart not only knows how to serve their current grocery retail customers, Instacart knows how to take their customers and put them out of business. Mehta recently stated that Instacart is “actively hiring dedicated Instacart analysts who will be embedded in retail partners’ headquarters to support them.” Am I the only person screaming and laughing at the absurdity of grocery executives who will allow Instacart to embed analysts?

Note to Dunnhumby: You need to target every Instacart customer and market your services. I’m amazed you aren’t more aggressive in an industry actively looking for an alternative to Instacart. Retailers have a growing desire to analyze and monetize their own data vs. allowing Instacart and other third parties own and control the data.

Grocery retail isn’t only about online shopping. The grocery industry in the U.S. is estimated to be a $1T industry with most sales taking place in retail stores. Regardless of the denials, Instacart will leverage the mountain of data they’ve collected, and continues to collect, from their grocery customers. The data will identify exactly where Instacart must open stores to serve the needs of customers. Instacart branded grocery stores will become a reality.

Instacart is going to face an extreme amount of pressure in the coming years. For two years, I’ve had discussions with Postmates, DoorDash and the other restaurant delivery companies, about the need to fulfill and deliver online groceries and also teach their grocery retail customers how to install dark kitchens and sell restaurant quality food direct to their customers. Micro-fulfillment is a major topic of discussion. Uber Postmates, DoorDash, Grubhub, etc., must invest in opening their own micro-fulfillment centers. It’s happening. (Full disclosure: I continue to advise several restaurant delivery companies on the topic of micro-fulfillment).

What about Shipt? My advice to Target is divest Shipt. The company has failed at every level to become a competitor to Instacart even though the opportunity to do so exists. Shipt never lived up to its potential, Instacart exceeded theirs.

Instacart has no choice but to be deceptive. As with all deception, however, at some point the truth becomes known. Odds are high that by 2025, the deception will end and the truth will be told – Instacart is going to become the largest online grocery retailer in the U.S., and will open hundreds if not thousands of stores.

Conclusion

Instacart has every right to do what I outlined above. In fact, I hope it happens. But will it? The unknown is whether or not Instacart will be acquired. I have stated in writing and publicly that Shopify, Berkshire-Hathaway, Facebook, FedEx, Target or Google should assess acquiring Instacart. Amazon could acquire Instacart as doing so would eliminate a major competitor. Walmart could acquire Instacart.

The challenge for Instacart is that they’re vulnerable. The sun has shone brightly on Instacart for several years but storm clouds are gathering. DoorDash and Uber Postmates have exceptional potential to go after Instacart’s customers.

Most of Instacart’s customers can enter into agreements with micro-fulfillment companies to purchase and install MFCs within their retail ecosystems thus eliminating the need for Instacart.

Instacart going public may turn out to be its last hurrah if it’s not careful. Investing in micro-fulfillment, becoming an online grocery retailer, and opening their own stores remains the best strategy for Instacart.

Micro-Fulfillment as a Service

Micro-Fulfillment as a Service

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

The Biggest Opportunity In Retail

The Biggest Opportunity In Retail

I often write about the topic of retail strategy because I find the topic interesting, and I have a way of coming up with ideas that generate a lot of interest from Wall Street, retail analysts, business executives and casual followers of the retail industry. For example, I recently wrote an article about the retail industry and it proved to be wildly popular with readers. Why? Because I’m not afraid to share my opinion or publicly state what I believe certain companies should do.

The retail industry is in a funk. Several large retailers like Walmart, Target and Amazon are doing very well. However, many other retailers have either filed for bankruptcy, closed stores, or gone out of business. The best retailers are those companies that have an executive team carefully analyzing market trends and the needs of their customers. Retailers go out of business due to a lack of leadership, imagination and innovation, and not because of a lack of products on their shelves.

Although the retail industry is struggling, there are unique opportunities that I believe should embraced. For example,

  • Facebook or Shopify should acquire Instacart
  • Amazon should divest Whole Foods and acquire Kohl’s
  • Zoom should acquire a gaming company like Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard
  • Tesla should acquire Jeep

On the surface, the opportunities I listed may not make sense to some people because they’re counterintuitive to what they already know the companies I listed. Amazon divest Whole Foods? Why? Didn’t Amazon just acquire Whole Foods?, are questions I’m confident many readers are asking themselves. Let’s dive deeper into this recommendation.

I am recognized as being one of the first people to recommend to Amazon to acquire Whole Foods. I outlined my argument in this 2013 research paper. At the time I wrote the paper, I believed that Whole Foods was strategic to Amazon. However, in subsequent articles I wrote about Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, I made it clear that Amazon should sell CPG branded products at Whole Foods to increase customers and sales. That didn’t occur. Instead, Amazon is building their own 35,000 square feet supermarkets selling all of the traditional products found in supermarkets. Amazon is also selling organic products in the stores.

Here’s the problem. Amazon acquired Whole Foods but Amazon hasn’t improved Whole Foods. The percentage of customers shopping at Whole Foods has decreased. Amazon’s grocery stores, however, are very popular and highly rated by retail analysts. Amazon is creating a business model where they will sell more groceries in their Amazon Fresh stores then at Whole Foods. In fact, it’s logical to conclude that Whole Foods sales will decrease or remain stagnant.

Whole Foods is no longer strategic to Amazon. What should Amazon do?

Amazon should divest Whole Foods. The company that should own Whole Foods is Target. Whole Foods customers overwhelmingly shop at Target, and Target must improve its grocery business. If Target acquires Whole Foods, it can open Whole Foods Markets inside its Target stores. Whole Foods is strategic to Target. If Target doesn’t acquire Whole Foods, they should explore a merger with Kroger or assess selling their grocery business. (I have encouraged Amazon to acquire Target since 2018. Among the reasons for doing so is that Amazon can open Whole Foods Markets inside each Target store. I believe Amazon will acquire Kohl’s, not Target).

Not everyone will agree with my recommendation.

CVS Pharmacy And The Biggest Opportunity In Retail

In 2015, Target made the decision to sell its pharmacy business to CVS for $1.9B. Most retail and Wall Street analysts supported Target’s decision. This link provides an overview of CVS.

I believe CVS should consider making a decision similar to Target. Specifically, I believe the biggest opportunity in retail is for CVS to sell the retail portion of their stores while maintaining ownership of the pharmacies in each store. CVS operates 9,900 stores including pharmacies inside Target’s stores. Here’s why.

Walk into most retail pharmacies and what do you see? Usually its a mixture of products often with no rhyme or reason. CVS Pharmacy, for example, advertises itself as a ‘Pharmacy and drugstore which fills prescriptions and sells health products, snacks, and basic groceries.’ The problem is that CVS isn’t a grocery store or a traditional convenience store.

The focus at CVS is on fulfilling prescriptions. It appears that the products in the stores are there to fill space and entice customers waiting for their prescriptions to be filled to buy something. Anything. And that’s a problem. It’s also an opportunity. Selling their retail operations will generate generate a significant sum for CVS, and allow the company to focus exclusively on their pharmacy business.

The following is a list of companies that could potentially be interested in acquiring most if not all of CVS’ retail locations:

  1. Amazon could open AmazonGo and Amazon Go Market stores inside each of CVS Pharmacy’s retail locations except where CVS operates pharmacies inside Target’s stores. Amazon is at the top of the list of the companies I believe that should acquire CVS Pharmacy’s retail operations.
  2. Instacart could partner with CVS to design, implement and manage all retail within the stores; Instacart leverages the stores as grocery drop off locations. It’s plausible that Instacart would be interested in opening Instacart-branded stores complete with a CVS pharmacy inside each.
  3. Shopify could opens a new form of retail store focused on displaying and selling products from Direct to Consumer brands. Not my favorite option but the idea has potential.
  4. Walmart would certainly be interested in extending its reach with a new retail format.
  5. Grocery retailers would certainly be interested in the opportunity to leverage the stores. Lidl should jump at the chance of acquiring CVS locations.
  6. Couche-Tard, the owner of Circle K convenience stores, would be able to do some very interesting things if they acquired CVS’ retail business. (The weakness in the convenience store industry is the lack of a format that includes pharmacies).

There are other companies I can name, but one name stands above the rest and that’s Target. Because of their relationship, I believe Target is the ideal company to approach CVS about either acquiring their retail operations, or forming a partnership with CVS for Target to open a small retail format inside their stores. CVS Target. I like the sound of that. However, AmazonGo stores are likely the best fit hence the reason why I rank Amazon over Target.

The Wild Card – Google acquires CVS’ retail operations and reimagines the retail experience across nearly 10,000 locations. Google’s focus on enabling retail isn’t thinking big. I strongly encourage to start making acquisitions. Instacart, TikTok, Target, the list is nearly endless. Partner with Shopify. Do something BIG, Google.

If CVS keeps their retail operations, I encourage the company to consider making an acquisition of goPuff and/or Sprouts Farmers Market. Another option is partnering with the Russian retailer VkusVill. CVS must create a better experience for their customers which should include an increased selection of groceries and also delivery. I also encourage CVS to go big into private label brands for better pricing. What’s certain is this: CVS cannot maintain the status quo in their stores.

I encourage CVS, and any retailer that would acquire the retail business from CVS, to introduce the use of micro-fulfillment centers across the CVS retail store ecosystem. Due to the small size of the stores, leveraging micro-fulfillment will accelerate the ability to carry less inventory in the stores while maintaining high in-stock levels through rapid replenishment. CVS is making a mistake by not already implementing micro-fulfillment centers.

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

Retail Strategy And Learning How To ‘Think Big’

Retail Strategy And Learning How To ‘Think Big’

Prior to Covid-19, most retailers were operating with the same business models that they had used for years. When Covid-19 hit, many retailers were identified as being nonessential, resulting in their stores being shut down for long periods of time. The only retailers allowed to remain open were those deemed essential — grocery stores and pharmacies, for example.

Being listed as a nonessential retailer resulted in lost sales and furloughing thousands of employees. As 2020 progressed, retailers focused on implementing strategies for social distancing and increased cleaning practices inside their stores. Many consumers avoided shopping in nonessential retail stores that sold apparel, shoes and other items found in department stores, and instead focused on essential items like groceries and food. 

As retailers enter 2021, essential and nonessential retailers will be faced with the need to evaluate their strategies. This is easier said than done for most retailers. Nonessential retailers will need an actionable vision that will set them apart from their competitors while attracting customers to shop in their stores. These same retailers will also have to determine if stores are strategic to their operating models or if moving to an online model is the better strategy.

An unknown for retailers is what will happen in the year ahead. Will Americans embrace getting vaccinated and will Covid-19 be in the rearview mirror by the end of 2021? Or do we have more hurdles ahead with the virus?

Retailers can’t operate based on assumptions. They must operate based on the needs of their customers and company. What’s certain is that the strategies used by retailers in 2021 must be an improvement over the strategies used in 2020.

The Science Of Strategy

In my consulting practice, most retailers that contract my services are focused on improving the strategy they were using to compete in the market. I enjoy working with retailers, but on the topic of strategy, I find it necessary to spend an exorbitant amount of time understanding who within a company came up with the current strategy and their motivation for doing so.

I continue to be amazed at the number of CEOs and other senior executives that identify the strategies they want to use based on “gut feel” vs. science. In some cases, retailers operate without a strategy.

To simplify the understanding of strategy, I leverage several methodologies that I learned from Capgemini and Deloitte. In addition, I utilize game theory, which is referred to as the science of strategy. When used correctly, game theory is ideal for comparing and analyzing what strategies will achieve the desired outcome for a retailer.

What I like most about game theory is that it provides an opportunity for executives to better understand the impacts of their decisions on their companies and, most often overlooked, their competitors.

For example, I’ve worked with retailers that prefer to minimize markdowns on the products they sell in their retail stores. However, increased competition reduced sales leading to a rash decision to markdown items by as much as 25%. Executives believed the decision would increase the number of customers in the stores to take advantage of the bargains.

The opposite happened. Customers chose to bypass the retailer altogether and instead go shopping at everyday low-price leaders or discounters that carried similar products. Reducing prices by only 25% failed to attract bargain hunters because those shoppers could find bigger savings elsewhere.

Strategy is among the most difficult challenges faced by retailers, and it’s about to become even more difficult.

Learning How To Think Big

When I worked at Amazon, leading the expansion of AmazonFresh and Pantry, a phrase we used frequently in the company was “think big.” Jeff Bezos challenged everyone who worked for Amazon to come up with ideas that would delight customers and, in turn, create an increased advantage for the company.

Thinking big was part of the culture at Amazon.

Most retailers, however, don’t think big and it’s not part of their culture.

A technique I use to teach retailers to think big is to review a series of examples that question the status quo within retail. These examples showcase the value of questioning the status quo and challenging a company’s culture to embrace big ideas and change. Each contains the name of a well-known retailer (or another company) along with a recommendation to acquire a company, merge with a company or make some other type of “big move”:

• Amazon acquires Target, Kohl’s or Shopify.

• Shopify acquires Instacart.

• Kroger and Target merge.

• Facebook acquires Instacart or Target.

• Walmart acquires TikTok or Instacart.

• FedEx and Walmart partner and acquire Shopify.

• Tesla acquires Jeep.

• Instacart opens automated micro-fulfillment centers and becomes an online grocery retailer.

• Google acquires eBay, Instacart or Shopify.

Game theory comes in when challenging and discussing the value of each example and identifying which recommendation would generate the best results.

The size of your retail business doesn’t matter. This exercise is helpful to understand the impact that big strategic moves can have on your company. By applying game theory, you can learn how to answer the who, what, when, where and why of each recommendation.

After this exercise, thinking strategically about the moves your company can make becomes easier — at least that’s what I’ve found in my work with my clients.

2021 is going to be another difficult year for many retailers. Learning how to think big is a must. The future of many companies will depend on it.

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Optimal Retailer Micro-Fulfillment Strategy

Optimal Retailer Micro-Fulfillment Strategy

Micro-fulfillment, as a solution for automating online grocery fulfillment and fulfillment of other retail products closer to customers, is growing in popularity among retailers. Amazon, Walmart, H-E-B, Ahold Delhaize and FreshDirect are just a few of the retailers that have embraced the use of micro-fulfillment technology.

However, for every retailer that has made the decision to enter into an agreement with a micro-fulfillment company to install its technology, there are dozens of retailers still stuck on answering the questions: How do we choose the right solution? How do we know what’s best for us?

Strategy First

A mistake that I continue to see made by certain retailers is that they select a micro-fulfillment solution without first having a micro-fulfillment strategy. Bad idea.

I have personally provided consulting to several retailers that selected and installed micro-fulfillment solutions only to discover that no value of any kind was derived in doing so. I was contracted to assess the current state of their operations and identify the optimal future-state strategy, and in each case, the failure on the part of the retailers to identify the optimal strategy created a situation whereby the micro-fulfillment technology provided no value. The situation could have easily been avoided by following an effective methodology and by working with a consulting company.

Precision Distribution Consulting (PDC) is one of the few consulting firms skilled in analyzing the value of micro-fulfillment solutions to a retailer and then identifying the optimal strategy for introducing micro-fulfillment solutions into the retailer’s ecosystem of stores. Kearney, Capgemini, Accenture and Deloitte also provide consulting services related to micro-fulfillment, as do McKinsey, The Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company. (I do not have business relationships with these companies, but I am a former consultant for Capgemini and Deloitte).

The methodologies utilized by these consulting companies vary, but some critical elements include:

• Assessing each micro-fulfillment solution and selecting the best solution based on the requirements of the retailer.

• Building a current-state supply chain and logistics network model.

• Conducting scenario analysis to evaluate the impact of introducing micro-fulfillment technology into the retail network.

• Assessing changes required to manage inventory replenishment to each micro-fulfillment solution.

• Performing a “what if?” analysis to identify the total number of micro-fulfillment centers and automated dark stores a retailer should install within its retail ecosystem.

• Identifying the optimal future-state supply chain model to maximize the value of each micro-fulfillment center within the network.

• Building a business case outlining savings across labor and increased productivity to justify the investment in micro-fulfillment.

As a consultant, I’ve found determining the optimal strategy is the first step in every project that I lead. However, Covid-19, the growth of Amazon, changing consumer behavior away from stores to e-commerce and increased retail bankruptcies has resulted in many retail executives wanting to move fast into micro-fulfillment. I disagree with such an approach.

When confronted with an executive pushing to select and install a micro-fulfillment solution without first understanding the optimal strategy, I remind them of the exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“… so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat. “If you only walk long enough.”

Without a strategy, retailers have movement within their supply chains and operations but nothing more. Many people are in motion installing the selected micro-fulfillment solution, but the movement gets them nowhere, and the micro-fulfillment solution adds no value.

Selecting The Optimal Micro-Fulfillment Solution 

Once a retailer has identified the optimal micro-fulfillment strategy to meet its needs, the next step in the process is evaluating the different micro-fulfillment solutions available on the market.

The company I work for, PULSE Integration, has a business relationship with the micro-fulfillment company AutoStore. However, the purpose of this section isn’t to discuss AutoStore; it is to provide an overview of the leading micro-fulfillment solutions on the market and the key questions to consider during the selection process.

Whenever a retailer enters into an agreement with any micro-fulfillment company, the entire micro-fulfillment industry wins. I believe José Vicente Aguerrevere, Max Pedró and Rafael Pieretti V, founders of the company Takeoff, deserve credit for creating the modern-day micro-fulfillment industry. Other leading micro-fulfillment companies include Alert Innovation, Attabotics, Exotec, Dematic, Fabric and Tompkins Robotics.

Innovation is becoming increasingly important in the micro-fulfillment industry. For example, Takeoff is transitioning from a micro-fulfillment company to a software company capable of licensing its technology platform to retailers and micro-fulfillment companies to run all front-end and back-end operations related to online grocery ordering, fulfillment and operations.

At a high level, micro-fulfillment solutions are designed to do one thing: automate the process of fulfilling online grocery and e-commerce orders. Micro-fulfillment solutions are either shuttle-based or cube-based. There are positives and negatives of each.

A micro-fulfillment center can be installed inside every store to fulfill the curbside and online orders for a single store only. Micro-fulfillment centers can also be installed inside select store locations to fulfill curbside and online orders for many stores — a hub-and-spoke model. Again, there are pros and cons of each.

Retailers must first identify which model they prefer because that will determine the number of micro-fulfillment centers required to meet the demand for groceries from their customers. The model determines the strategy. My advice to all retailers is to assign someone from within their company who is experienced in micro-fulfillment to fairly evaluate all micro-fulfillment options or to partner with a third party that can lead the process.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when selecting a micro-fulfillment solution.

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