The Current, delivered daily.
Can Amazon cut and grow at the same time?
The company is pulling back after breakneck pandemic expansion. Will it sacrifice the shopping experience along the way?
Amazon is in a period of rebalancing.
The company has long scaled at a relentless pace as it sought to not only provide a marketplace for commerce, but the infrastructure that enabled it, as well. Amazon found another level of overdrive over the last two years, as demand spiked to unseen heights during the pandemic and the company tried to build to keep up.
This wasn’t necessarily a period that saw the kind of invention that Jeff Bezos made an existential tenet of the company, but it nonetheless seems to be shaking out as a cycle that included risk and fallout.
In this case, the risk was not a new device like a smartphone or a move to bend the future to Amazon's will like drone delivery. Rather, it was an expansion that took its already-vast operations to new heights.
Nowhere was this more evident than the company’s logistics network. As CEO Andy Jassy described it to analysts Thursday on an earnings call, the company doubled the size of a fulfillment network it took a quarter-century to build in two years. It also built out a last-mile delivery network that was the size of UPS, which is one of the top two carriers in the U.S.
In 2022, all of that expansion ran into 40-year-high inflation, war in Ukraine and a pullback in demand for goods amid reopening. The company first admitted the problem: It had overbuilt.
But the solution is not to tear down. It had to keep expanding as only Amazon does, while still cutting back in a period of “belt-tightening,” as executives have put it.
That’s evident in watching developments out of the logistics network alone. Amazon pulled out of some areas, and canceled plans to expand into some new warehouses. Yet, as Business Insider reported, it still added 79 million square feet – a footprint that is equal to half of next-closest competitor Walmart’s entire distribution network. It is also expanding Buy with Prime, a new program that will allow direct-to-consumer brands to offer Prime benefits, and, by extension, access to Amazon’s logistics network. Another service, called Amazon Warehousing and Delivery, is designed for upstream storage, necessitating more space to be made available in the network.
At the same time, it will seek to keep doing more for consumers.
Jassy indicated as much when he was prompted to outline his priority areas. Beyond cost-cutting, he said speed is the second highest priority for Amazon. As if to conform this, he said later in the call that one-day shipping is getting off the ground in North America.
Selection is another priority area. At Amazon, that phrase translates to a few things, but top of mind is “expanding the third-party seller marketplace.” Third-party sellers accounted for 59% of sales in Q4. Beyond sales, Amazon’s work with the sellers who post their products on the marketplace is also lucrative for the company. Amazon allows these sellers to tap its logistics network to offer Prime through the Fulfillment by Amazon program. Its business segment called third-party seller services grew 20% year-over-year in the fourth quarter, right in line with the massively profitable cloud computing division Amazon Web Services.
Price, Jassy said, is another area of importance, especially with the consumer pullback on discretionary purchases being observed amid inflation.
“I think pricing being sharp is always important,” Jassy said. “But particularly in this type of uncertain economy, where customers are very conscious about how much they're spending, having the millions of deals that we put together with our selling partners in the fourth quarter was an important part of the demand that you saw.”
Finally, Jassy cited a priority of improving the customer experience. He said Buy with Prime would give subscribers the ability to use their benefits across the web, and noted that virtual try-on for shoes brings change to the shopping experience.
But it’s in this area that the tradeoffs that may be happening under the surface may rear their head again. GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders noted that online shopping generally is becoming “more difficult" on Amazon.
“While the Amazon marketplace is far from a terrible place to shop, it has become more complex and cluttered with a multitude of products, delivery options, and prices levels for shoppers to sift through,” Saunders wrote in note released at the time of the earnings call. “The result is that impulse buying has dropped and that more people are migrating away to other retailers. This is not yet a serious problem as erosion has only happened at the margins, but it is something Amazon will need to address and arrest to prevent further decline.”
Taking a rhetorical step further, the journalist John Hermann wrote this week that a “junkification” of Amazon is taking place, while arguing that “everything is going according to plan" for the company.
He placed the growth of the third-party seller marketplace at the center of this trend. But it also comes as Amazon grows its advertising business, with many taking note of a growing number of ads on the platform. The company also wants to keep growing Prime, and is now using content such as Lord of the Rings and NFL’s Thursday Night Football as key acquisition channels. Both had “record” signups of new Prime members, CFO Brian Olsavsky said.
“We see a direct link between that type of engagement and higher purchases of everyday products on our Amazon website,” he said.
It will have to do each of these things at once, while entering a period that will require it to be “more targeted with its growth ambitions,” as Saunders put it.
"Since its inception, Amazon has had a culture of throwing dollars at many different things to see where they led and what they could learn," Saunders said. "That approach worked well for a younger, fast-growth business. It works far less successfully for a more mature entity. In our view, management deserves credit for recognizing this and quickly responding. However, the shift requires a lot of care because Amazon needs to find a new balance between being ambitious and innovative and being more frugal with its spending – which will be very challenging."
Jassy said the changes of the pandemic made its logistics a "different network." That may be true of the whole company. Rather than an isolated cycle of overbuilding and pulling back, this may prove to be a period that changes Amazon altogether. The bets will still be there, but the risk will be magnified with fewer dollars that don't pay off to go around. As hinted by the logistics buildout of the pandemic and even Buy with Prime, they also may look more operational.
Less delivery robot, more delivery optimization.
As Jassy put it: “We're going to be very thoughtful about how we streamline our costs, and I think you see a lot of that, but we're also going to continue to invest for the long term.”
The recipients of those investments will say a lot about where it wants to head in this next year.
Trending in Shopper Experience
These drones are pinpointing lost inventory in warehouse stacks
Gather AI is deploying drones to help improve accuracy and speed within logistics operations.
Think of drones being used in ecommerce, and delivery probably comes to mind first. After all, Jeff Bezos’ famed 60 Minutes appearance in 2013 left a lasting vision of flying goods.
A decade later, a startup is showing that the last mile isn’t the only part of ecommerce logistics where autonomous aerial vehicles can make an impact.
Gather AI is deploying drones inside warehouses to help companies improve the accuracy of inventory counts, free up humans from repetitive labor and even locate inventory items that managers lost in the stacks. This week, the Pittsburgh-based company was named to the Retail Tech 100 from CB Insights, adding to a number of milestones over the last several years.
Founded out of Carnegie Mellon University’s famed robotics program by a team that was funded by DARPA to develop the first autonomous helicopter, Gather AI is applying the data collection capabilities of drones to inventory monitoring and asset gathering. During PhD work at CMU, CEO Sankalp Arora pursued a question at the center of how autonomous systems might interact with surroundings: How do you make drones curious?
“They were curious about landing zones, wires, openings in buildings and moving assets because my work was funded by the Department of Defense,” Arora said. “Now, my drones are curious about barcodes, boxes, racking and labels.”
Gather AI's drones are being used across multiple verticals of commerce, such as third-party logistics, retail distribution, manufacturing and food & beverage. Ahead of the company’s commercial launch in 2021, ecommerce emerged as a particular area that was rife with problems to solve. As fulfillment centers were getting bigger, the time required for humans with clipboards to count inventory only got longer. Additionally, the logistics space faced heavy labor attrition rates and even shortages, especially in the midst of the pandemic ecommerce boom.
“The warehouses were struggling to keep up,” Arora said. “Currently, our solution provides real-time inventory monitoring for those customers in warehouses nine to 15 times faster than current operations, and it is all visible and traceable, in real-time, with live photos.”
A drone flying in a warehouse. (Courtesy photo)
The drones fly between standing racks, using technology including robotics, computer vision and deep learning alongside cameras to map environments and collect data from the shelves. They run through an iPad, which provides monitoring and dashboards to review data. In one unique challenge among many that the company had to solve, there is no access to WiFi inside warehouses due to the metal construction, so the iPad and drones are connected.
The advancement of drones is an intriguing development for technologists, but for the people who run logistics operations, the question of their utility ultimately comes down to how it will help their business.
In some cases, these drones have been able to locate items after humans lost track of them. The company found 25,000 lost pallets for customers in 2022.
“It's misplaced inventory. It's not where it's supposed to be. It's somewhere in the warehouse. And as a result, if you get an order for that inventory, you don't get to pick it because you don't know where it is,” Arora said. “Now, we've found those and know exactly where they are, [so] they can fix their warehouse management system and start picking.”
That’s just one of the ways that the company said that drones improve inventory. Gather AI identified the following uses for warehouse drones, with stats from customers:
- Cycle count frequency: Full inventory collection time was reduced from 90 days to 2.5 days.
- Inventory accuracy: WMS error rate decreased from 11% to 3% in 3 months.
- Travel times: $250K-$350K was saved by improving putaway efficiency.
- Labor efficiency: 15x pallets were scanned per hour.
- Sales: 2x sales in one year.
To fuel growth, Gather AI raised $17.5 million to date from investors, including a $10 million Series A in 2021, and now has 30 employees. It is looking to continue to grow not only its customer base, but the number of facilities it is flying through for those current clients. Each time the company started with a company in one facility, it has added others from that same company. Now, it is expanding capabilities to expand visibility and traceability through the warehouses in order to function as a complete network.
With customer deployments and results to report, Gather AI will be heading to Promat 2023 and the IWLA Convention in March.