PULSE Integration partnered OTTO Motors, to undertake what is the world’s first in-depth analysis of automated mobile robots (AMRs) deployed at scale in industrial facilities. With hundreds of facilities across North America, this billion dollar organization is a household name in Consumer Packaged Goods. In 2 facilities spanning over 1.7M sq ft, this Fortune 500 company is 100% reliant on OTTO technology for their material transport.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Walmart would certainly be interested in extending its reach with a new retail format.
- Grocery retailers would certainly be interested in the opportunity to leverage the stores. Lidl should jump at the chance of acquiring CVS locations.
- 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.
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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According to Oracle’s latest grocery industry survey, 61% of consumers said they had ordered groceries online during the pandemic, with 41% now shopping online for their groceries more than in the store. Ninety-two percent of respondents also said they would likely continue shopping for their groceries online.
The survey provided an interesting insight into the delivery and pickup preferences of customers who order their groceries online, with 3 out of 4 indicating they had their groceries delivered to their homes, 16% picking up their groceries inside the store and 11% opting for curbside.
Covid-19 has made unattended delivery (no human contact with a delivery driver) a necessity, and this expectation is not going to change. Post pandemic, I believe there will be an even stronger demand for unattended delivery fulfillment as people begin to spend more time out of their homes again while continuing to order their groceries online.
The Problem With Online Grocery Delivery
Online grocery ordering and delivery is becoming more strategic to grocery retailers.
In my role as a strategy consultant to some of the largest grocery retailers in the world, I’ve witnessed the growth of online grocery fulfillment. I’ve also seen the problems associated with this growth. For example, in my opinion, the worst business model ever created is online grocery ordering and fulfillment in its current format. Grocery retailers can lose up to $25 on every online order they fulfill. I’ve previously written about the costs associated with fulfilling online orders and how introducing micro-fulfillment will greatly reduce the costs and complexity associated with online grocery ordering and delivery.
The best way for me to describe the process for delivering groceries to customers is that it is broken and getting worse. Grocery retailers are experts at running their stores, but most do a poor job of optimizing the logistics required to make deliveries. Out of fear of losing business to grocery retailers that offer online grocery ordering and delivery, most grocery retailers are offering the service.
However, instead of applying the science of supply chain management to increase the density of orders in specific regions to add more orders per delivery vehicle, retailers are embracing increased volume. This has resulted in the need for more associates to pick and fulfill orders along with an increased number of delivery drivers and vehicles. Because of a shortage of associates and delivery drivers, many grocery retailers are unable to fulfill orders to meet the delivery windows for their customers.
To make matters worse, groceries are perishable. It is impractical, unsanitary and unsafe to deliver groceries to a home only to leave the groceries outside. However, the increased volume is making it difficult for grocery retailers to deliver all the groceries ordered online to their customers. Several grocery retailers recently contacted me to solve this problem: Even if they make deliveries between 6 a.m. and midnight, they are still unable to make all the required deliveries. Consumers are then abandoning grocery retailers that can’t deliver during the selected time window.
The inability to keep up with the demand for grocery delivery has resulted in many retailers contracting third-party delivery companies. The problem with these companies is that they do not reflect the image or brand of the store. The use of third-party delivery services lacks accountability.
Contract day workers answer an alert to fulfill a delivery for one of the many delivery service companies. There is no dress code, no company standard and no way to monitor or enforce accountability. I am frequently contacted by customers reporting an incident with a third-party delivery driver. The most common complaints I hear are that delivery drivers steal groceries, eat some of the food that was ordered or refuse to deliver the groceries to the customer without being tipped upfront. Less common but more serious complaints are of delivery drivers who have shown up high or drunk or have threatened customers.
In order to not lose a sale, many grocers are willing to risk compromising delivery integrity. I hold senior executives at grocery retailers accountable for the breakdown of common courtesy and respect related to online grocery delivery.
After researching online grocery deliveries globally for over two years, I believe several solutions are available to improve the service and delight customers.
The first thing that has to occur is that grocery retailers need to understand that whoever wins the porch will win the battle for attracting and retaining customers. Retailers have to be willing to introduce technology to eliminate the current constraints associated with grocery delivery and provide customers with better service.
Based on my research, I recommend that grocery retailers consider seeking temperature and climate-controlled container solutions that can be secured to a porch, garage, home or office, enabling customers’ completely unattended receipt of their order. Consider what items you’re fulfilling for customers — chilled and frozen products, medications, dry foods and so on —when selecting the appropriate solution.
Grocery retailers should also explore installing temperature-controlled lockers in high-density locations to allow for mass delivery of groceries. Customers can pick up their groceries at their leisure. Retailers can also install this type of system at their stores.
Retailers must raise the bar when it comes to last-mile delivery. Leveraging mobile retail or introducing the use of grocery delivery carts should become the norm. And finally, retailers should rethink their use of third-party delivery companies. Retailers should own the customer relationship, from online ordering to delivery, and insist on integrity at all times.
Grocery retailers that introduce these strategies and technologies into their businesses will help to protect the integrity of their delivery models, increase the customer experience and accelerate the growth of online ordering.