Micro-fulfillment as a Service (MaaS): Is It An Option Retailers Should Pursue?

Micro-fulfillment as a Service (MaaS): Is It An Option Retailers Should Pursue?

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 Growing Digital Divide in Manufacturing

The Growing Digital Divide in Manufacturing

There is a growing consensus that digitization is opening up a chasm in the manufacturing industry.

On one side, there are the innovative, tech-savvy firms that are forging ahead full speed with digital transformation strategies, and reaping the benefits of doing so. On the other side, are businesses that have been slower to embrace the ‘Industry 4.0’ trend and who are at risk of falling behind as a result.

Deloitte reports that early adopters of smart factory initiatives have enjoyed average gains of 10 to 12% in areas such as manufacturing output, factory utilization and labor productivity. Research published in The Harvard Business Review found that digital leaders are 1.5 times more likely to optimize production runs based on demand forecast.

Moreover, there are fears that COVID-19 could make the divide even greater. According to a survey carried out by L.E.K, 51% of businesses with existing advanced digital capabilities plan to invest more in digitized operations in response to the pandemic, compared to 30% of firms overall.

It isn’t that the benefits of digitization are disputed. According to another study carried out by Deloitte, 69% of decision-makers said switching to a digital supply chain would deliver exponential or significant benefits to their business.

Yet only a third said they were prioritizing this as a strategic objective. Asked what the barriers to digitization were, the most common answer was budgetary constraints. Other issues cited included not knowing where to start, misalignment of competing priorities across the business, and difficulties making the long term business case within a rigid financial reporting framework.

Making Good the Promise

As far back as 2016, industry bodies were heralding mobile robotics as critical pieces in the jigsaw for achieving agile, efficient “always-on” supply chains. According to Robotics.org, the use of mobile robots as an intralogistics solution would streamline workflows, cut picking errors, boost throughput, consolidate space and offset rising labor shortages and costs.

These are all benefits that the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic bring into sharp relief. As a result, Interact Analysis has said that it believes the impact of the pandemic will lead to a long-term net rise in mobile robotics adoption.

“We believe that the impact of COVID-19 will lead to a long-term net positive for the mobile robot industry. E-commerce, near-shoring of manufacturing and adoption of robotics and automation to reduce reliance on human labor will all likely accelerate. This remains one of the most resilient and promising industries that we track.”
— Ash Sharma, MD & Senior Research Director - UK, Interact Analysis

That’s why PULSE Integration and OTTO partnered to undertake what is the world’s first in-depth analysis of automated mobile robots (AMRs) deployed at scale in industrial facilities.

The Business Case for Autonomous Mobile Robots in Manufacturing

The Business Case for Autonomous Mobile Robots in Manufacturing

OTTO Rendering
  • First deployment of OTTO AMRs at scale at an F500 company demonstrates clear benefits in productivity, cost savings, and robustness.
  • Analysis reveals that a single AMR unit represents just 10% of the equivalent human labor cost, 20% of forklift operating costs, 50% of conveyor costs and 66% of AGV costs.
For a number of years now, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) have been considered a promising technology for improving the resilience of manufacturing operations.

In the context of manufacturing, resilience means agility – the ability to react to and adapt to change at speed, whether it be in response to fluctuations in demand, market conditions, supply lines, the availability of labor, or otherwise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the resilience of manufacturing operations worldwide like never before. Yet in the midst of the turmoil created by the biggest global crisis in 75 years, mobile robotics has been singled out as one of the most promising of all emerging technology sectors, offering a vital tool in the race amongst manufacturers to adopt COVID-safe, flexible, and digitized working practices.

Yet for all the optimism, manufacturing firms rightly ask one crucial question about AMR adoption – where’s the evidence that it will have the promised impact on my operations?

While there are plenty of examples illustrating the benefits of small deployments, the business case for full-scale adoption by large firms has been lacking robust evidence.

Until now, that is.

A World-First for AMRs

PULSE Integration partnered with OTTO Motors to carry out one of the world’s first large scale deployments of autonomous mobile robots for materials handling in manufacturing.

The project involved the deployment of the OTTO Materials Handling Platform to provide the backbone of advanced manufacturing and eCommerce intralogistics at an F500 company. It took place over two sites, a brownfield and a greenfield.

Brownfield deployment at an existing 700,000 square foot facility, half of which was given over exclusively to the use of AMRs to provide transport of raw material pallets, work in progress pallets, and finished goods pallets in place of forklifts.

Greenfield deployment at a brand new 1 million square foot facility, where AMRs were deployed exclusively in a 400,000 square foot area to collect materials from human pickers to take to automated machining cells, and also to perform autonomous collection of materials from automated cells.

By relying 100% on AMRs within the dedicated zones, PULSE was able to carry out a robust cost-benefit analysis in comparison with manual handling (use of hand carts or carrying good), forklifts, conveyors and also with Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), which run on tracks and therefore don’t offer the same freedom of movement as AMRs.

Clear Cost Benefits

1. AMRs vs. Forklifts

The findings were unanimously in favor of AMRs. At the brownfield facility, PULSE found the OTTO 1500 platform worked out at just 20% of the equivalent operating costs of forklifts. This was based on the calculation that a single unit operating around the clock, 24 x 7 x 52, cost $40-50k per vehicle per year. The equivalent cost of a single driver working 4.2 shifts per week, plus the forklift lease, comes in at $200-280k.

At the greenfield facility, PULSE deployed OTTO 100 units managed by the OTTO Fleet Manager IoT system. With an average cost of $15-25k per vehicle, the OTTO 100 represents just 10% of the labor costs of human drivers when compared on a 1:1 basis.

2. AMRs vs. AGVs

In comparison with AGVs, PULSE found that the overall productivity of the OTTO 1500 units was broadly similar and that AGVs even showed some advantage in wide-open spaces. However, in the tight, narrow spaces of a compact facility, the smaller footprint and better maneuverability of the OTTO 1500 showed clear performance benefits.

Freed from fixed paths and guideways, the AMR is, for example, able to navigate independently around obstacles and pedestrians and can maneuver flexibly within the footprint of a pallet. This makes it much more efficient when operating with work cells or production machinery. Overall, PULSE calculated that this gave the OTTO 1500 a 66% cost efficiency advantage compared to an equivalent AGV system.

3. AMRs vs. Conveyors

Compared with conveyors, meanwhile, which operate in fixed positions that cannot easily be rerouted as demands change, PULSE calculated that a single OTTO 100 unit could do the work equivalent to a 250 LF conveyor. This worked out as a 50% cost saving, although this was based on optimum loads. When conveyors, as so often happens, are sub-optimally loaded for throughput or when loading only happens sporadically, the cost benefits of the AMR can be even higher.

4. ROI

Finally, as well as significant cost efficiencies, PULSE’s analysis revealed that ROI on AMRs at this kind of scale could be as little as a year.

With payback driven by labor savings, increased productivity and efficiency, enhanced ergonomics, improved safety, lower capital costs (compared to conveyors) and the opportunity for more compact facility design (compared to AGVs), PULSE calculated that ROI for large scale deployments on system lease could be under 12 months.

Using vehicle-only lease, this would push up to 12-24 months, while upfront capital purchases would be typically paid for in two years or less.

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.

Read the full article featured in Forbes