Shopify and AEO acquired their way into logistics. It didn't go as planned
The reversals offer a cautionary tale for executives weighing a classic dilemma: Build or buy?
The reversals offer a cautionary tale for executives weighing a classic dilemma: Build or buy?
Welcome to Opportunity Fulfilled. This week, The Current is digging into the logistics transformation taking place at major retailers in 2023, and offering commentary on what these developments mean for the future of ecommerce.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic ecommerce boom brought massive operational growth across retail. The investment that retailers made to keep up with demand ushered in lasting transformation to fulfillment operations, as we’ve noted in this series.
Yet it’s also true that not everyone can be Amazon. Some of the big supply chain bets made during the pandemic didn’t pan out, especially when ecommerce growth returned to a more normalized trajectory in 2022.
In particular, Shopify and American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) made high-profile moves to scale logistics operations, and even made clear that they were setting out to take on the giants in doing so.
The companies occupy different parts of retail. Shopify is a software company that helps brands run ecommerce, while AEO is a brick-and-mortar-based apparel retailer better known as a mall staple than a digital innovator.
But during the wild ride of the pandemic years, both outfits made bets that they could build logistics operations that would attract small and medium-sized brands looking for an alternative to Amazon, and spent millions to acquire companies that would help them get there.
Alongside the investment, they talked like they wanted to got big.
As AEO COO Michael Rempell put it at Shoptalk in 2022, "There's a supply chain revolution happening and we want to lead it...We think it’s leveling the playing field and allowing like-minded companies to compete with Amazon, Walmart, Target – the biggest retailers in the world.”
In 2023, executives at both companies are singing a different tune. Shopify sold the $2 billion logistics acquisition Deliverr to Flexport. Meanwhile, AEO said its acquisition of Quiet Logistics wasn’t meeting expectations, and backed off an aggressive move to bring other retailers into the fold.
Together, these reversals represent a cautionary tale for retailers weighing how to scale ecommerce to keep up with future growth:
Buying your way into a market may provide a head start, but it’s still a long road to the top.
Let’s take a closer look at both deals to learn more:
Shopify has long been a leading software choice for brands looking to run the frontend of commerce. The tools built by the company and the apps available from its ecosystem of developers provide everything that’s needed to start and scale the demand generation and selling side of ecommerce.
But ecommerce is not just a matter of lining up the bits. It also requires moving atoms. As it sought to offer a more complete ecommerce platform, Shopify lacked its own tools for the backend of ecommerce such as processing goods and delivering them to customers.
There’s good reason for this. Operating fulfillment and delivery is a different business than building software. It requires warehouses and workers and boxes and trucks. Still, it’s an area where there’s a massive opportunity to make life easier for brands. Amazon’s FBA program showed how providing storage, fulfillment and delivery for third-party sellers could serve as a critical connecting point to deepen their ties to Amazon. These sellers may be independent, but the fact that they are reliant on Amazon’s facilities to provide the two-day shipping and free returns that customers expect make it an attractive and convenient way to sell there. Once you’re in, it’s tough to quit.
For its part, Shopify didn’t set out to build a sprawling logistics network. But it did make moves to provide full-service fulfillment. Initially, the Shopify Fulfillment Network had several warehouses. This stood to become supercharged when it acquired Deliverr for $2.1 billion in May 2022. The companies seemed to be a fit. While Deliverr owned warehouses, it had a software-centered approach to logistics that prized predictive analytics and placing inventory close to demand. Shopify executives talked about how it would be an “asset-light” network. Translation: We aren’t building an Amazon-like network, even as we compete with them.
But the move to acquire Deliverr was still expensive, clocking in at Shopify’s largest-ever deal. It also happened to arrive as ecommerce fortunes were shifting amid the return to stores and the weight of inflation on discretionary budgets. A couple of months after it made the acquisition, Shopify laid off 10% of its workforce as CEO Tobi Lutke admitted that the company’s bet on explosive growth for years ahead “didn’t pay off.”
This ultimately presaged a monthslong period of recalibration at the company. By May of 2023, it emerged with more layoffs, this time of 20% of the workforce. Executives spoke of a recommitment to priorities on the frontend of ecommerce, and Lutke disavowed “side quests.” Underscoring the fact that logistics fit into the latter category, Shopify sold Deliverr to Flexport just a year after buying it.
To be sure, Shopfiy will continue to benefit from the logistics network as the preferred partner of Flexport. And the fulfillment operation that Shopify started may still be built out to scale, especially with former Amazon commerce chief Dave Clark at the helm of Flexport. But the fact that Shopify turned away from this approach was ultimately another admission that the bet didn’t pay off. At the end of the day, Shopify runs a software company focused on the bits side of ecommerce. It will continue to leave the atoms side to others.
American Eagle was perhaps a more surprising entrant into the logistics arms race. But as it transformed its own supply chain to make ecommerce a more integrated part of its operation, the retailer saw an opportunity to provide logistics for other brands and retailers, as well.
In its own way, this was also a lesson from Amazon: Build a logistics operation, and it can be opened up to move from cost center to growth engine.
AEO did not lack in boldness and panache as it set out to apply these lessons. It acquired Quiet Logistics for $360 million as it set out to enable next-day and same-day shipping, and AirTerra in a move to aggregate packages.
AEO set out to own its supply chain, allowing it to make moves to save costs and implement omnichannel approaches that would bring store associates into the ecommerce mix, and add efficiency. Ultimately, the retailer decided that acquisitions would help to achieve the scale that was necessary during the pandemic.
In turn, this “hyperscale” would put it in a position to create a new kind of model, EVP and Chief Supply Chain Officer Shekar Natarajan argued. He spoke of creating a “frenemy network” where retailers banded together to create the large networks that the Amazons and Walmarts of the world could build on their own.
By April of 2023, Natarajan was no longer with the company. COO Michael Rempell told analysts that Quiet Logistics had grown at margins “below what we expected,” and the company planned to cut logistics costs.
AEO said the following in a statement to WWD:
“While Quiet’s third party business has grown nicely, it has not achieved the plans we envisioned. As a result, we must pull back on expenses to reset the business. This is necessary to improve profitability, particularly given prevailing macro headwinds….We are reducing the size of the Quiet workforce to be more in line with the current business trend….This decision was not made lightly, and we realize this will impact the lives of affected employees. We will provide them a variety of transition benefits.”
American Eagle Outfitters also stated that it is “committed to the continued transformation of our supply chain, and Quiet Platforms plays an important role in that strategy as we work to achieve increased profitability. Over the past few years Quiet has been tremendously beneficial to AEO, providing much needed distribution and fulfillment capacity to grow our industry-leading brands.”
AEO said Quiet was helping American Eagle’s business. But it restructured the third-party side of the platform that provided services to others, which included downsizing the workforce.
“We now have a leaner organization that will position us well for the future. We see opportunities to leverage Quiet's fulfillment capabilities to unlock even greater efficiencies in our operating model,” Rempell told analysts this week. “This includes optimizing inventory placement, buys, and replenishment as we work upstream through our supply chain.”
AEO did transform its own supply chain, but it appears that the frenemy network is not emerging at the same pace. The move indicates that AEO is sticking closer to the goal of bringing change to its own operations for omnichannel success. For now, that doesn’t mean it needs to provide those efficiencies for others, as well.
Each of the moves detailed above offer examples of companies that opted to scale by acquiring others.
That’s a distinct approach from the other companies we’ve covered in this series, including Amazon, Walmart, Target and Chewy. They all chose to build their own fulfillment operations for ecommerce, albeit in distinct ways.
We point this out not to suggest that acquisition is an automatic recipe for failure, but simply that build vs. buy is a choice that faces executives as they determine how to meet demand and continue growing ecommerce for a future that is still heading toward online shopping occupying a larger share of retail.
When it comes to the “build” camp, the size of the four major retailers listed above gives them an advantage. They have the resources to undertake ambitious, multiyear projects and they were able to direct even more energy into quickly scaling operations when the pandemic called for it. When the pandemic ended, they surveyed the landscape and made moves toward efficiency and sustainable profits.
The two companies in the “buy” category happened to make their acquisitions at a time when ecommerce was at its peak. Their plans involved creating a new network, rather than scaling up an existing one, and the roadmaps were likely altered drastically when the ecommerce trend line came back to Earth. Yet it’s worth noting that they also tried to add parts of their business that were completely new. It brings up an important question for any executive weighing options:
Do you want to be in the business that you’re acquiring for the long haul?
There’s no question that ecommerce companies will have to scale logistics and realize efficiencies that can maintain profitability. But as they do so, they need not forget who they are.
The retailer's marketplace is expanding quickly.
When it comes to ecommerce growth, was the pandemic a blip or a new trendsetter?
As we move further from the height of COVID-related closures, it’s a question that will start to be answered through the lens of history.
So far, the narrative of ecommerce growth in the U.S. from 2019-2022 has gone like this: Ecommerce’s share of overall retail saw a huge spike at the height of the pandemic in 2020-21, when goods in general were in demand and online shopping was necessary to preserve health and safety. Experts looked out and saw a permanent exponential change in the penetration of ecommerce as a share of retail that would last beyond the pandemic. Then, in 2022, everyone went back to stores and the trendline came back to 2019 levels. Growth was no longer exponential. There was still growth, but it was not happening as fast as during the pandemic period.
With this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that 2023 is the first year that there likely won’t be a pandemic-influenced swing to influence ecommerce growth. It is also a year where demand has suffered challenges amid inflation and interest rate hikes.
So as we seek to determine the importance of ecommerce to overall retail, it’s worth it to continue taking a close look at what growth trends retailers are seeing now, whether ecommerce is remaining resilient amid consumer pullback and how retailers are preparing for the future.
The latest example arrived this week from Macy’s. It’s a fitting one for the times. Overall, Macy’s is seeing a slowdown as consumers pull back on discretionary purchases, with sales declining 7% in the first quarter versus the same quarter of 2022. Digital sales were down 8%.
Macy’s is particularly susceptible to the macroeconomic headwinds that many brands and retailers are facing, as spending among the middle-income consumers it counts as a primary customer base is particularly softening, said GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders.
But while ecommerce is slowing overall, the importance it gained to Macy’s business during the pandemic is remaining in place.
In 2019, ecommerce made up 25% of Macy’s revenue, CEO Jeff Gennette told analysts on the company’s earnings call. That jumped to a high of 44% in 2020. By 2022, digital reached 33% of sales after the pandemic boom. In the first quarter of 2023, it remained at 33%. So, while the trend line dipped after shoppers returned to stores, ecommerce share still settled in at a higher post-lockdown point than it was before the pandemic.
This came in a quarter in which traffic was “relatively good” across both online and in-store, Gennette said. It was “flattish” online, and slightly up in stores.
“We do expect that this is the reset year with the penetration between them,” Gennette said. “But we do expect more aggressive growth in digital in the future versus stores as we think about '24 and beyond. And that's going to be foisted by a lot of ideas and strategies.
Over the last year, the retailer has made investments in boosting ecommerce, even as shoppers returned to stores. In a bid to boost the assortment of goods available online, Macy’s launched a marketplace in September 2022 that welcomes goods from third-party sellers.
The marketplace had an “outstanding” first quarter, said Macy’s President Tony Spring, who is poised to succeed Gennette as CEO next year. Gross merchandise value increased over 50% when compared to the fourth quarter of 2022, while the average order value and units per order for marketplace customers was 50% above those not shopping at the marketplace.
Macy’s is continuing to build the marketplace even as it racks up sales. The retailer added 450 brands, ending the quarter with 950 brands.
This is helping to draw in new customers, as well as younger existing customers who are buying more items, resulting in increased basket size.
“We're very excited as to how marketplace is really attracting the Gen Z customer, particularly in categories where it was not economically feasible for us to carry in the past,” Gennette said.
In the end, Gennette said a strong digital and social presence is key to attracting younger consumers. That's a different type of shopper than other age groups.
“We know the younger customer starts first online,” Gennette said. That behavior will still be in place as the generation gets older, and gains more buying power in the process.
Going forward, Macy’s is seeking to expand the model to other retail banners in its portfolio. Bloomingdale’s will open a marketplace in the early fall.
The Macy’s ecommerce trajectory isn’t that different from the wider U.S. ecommerce narrative detailed above. With one quarter of 2023 data, there is evidence that ecommerce share settled out at a higher point after the pandemic than where it started before COVID arrived. There is flattening now, but the retailer is taking it not as a sign of a slowdown, or a signal to change course. Rather, it sees changing consumer behavior as a reason to build for the future.