Online Shipping War: Amazon’s Shelf Robots Against Walmart’s Puny Humans

Amazon and other e-commerce companies have vast order fulfillment warehouses filled with shelves full of goods. Traditional big-box retailers don’t have the same kind of operations, but are trying to compete with e-commerce companies in shipping items directly to customers’ homes and to stores for pickup. How can they compete without building fulfillment warehouses of their own? By turning their existing stores and employees into a vast online order fulfillment operation.

In the case of Macy’s and Walmart, this is very literal: employees are combing the same shelves and racks as customers, either before open hours or alongside customers. The Wall Street Journal tailed online order pickers at stores in both chains as they filled online orders. The Macy’s worker tried to figure out where a hat had run off to that the inventory insisted was there in the store, and the Walmart worker struggled with a box that was too small and helped customers who needed help in the store along her route, as she filled a cart full of black bins for e-commerce items.

Does this system have advantages? Sure. In-store pickup is popular with customers, even if research shows that it often takes more time to pick up an order than it would to find the item on the shelf oneself in the first place. Retailers like Walmart do have dedicated e-commerce warehouses, but filling orders from store inventory lets them expand how many items they offer online without building additional warehouses. With foot traffic down in Walmart stores, this actually makes sense.

In terms of speed, it’s hard for the in-store order pickers to compete with Amazon’s team of dedicated pickers and robotic shelves, but for now this whole “omnichannel” thing is working out okay.

Can Wal-Mart Clerks Ship as Fast as Amazon Robots? [Wall Street Journal]