As we were coming off the rooftop last week at Atlanta’s Supply Chain Summit, I was intrigued by the industrial size lift that all the attendees were using. It was huge and I wondered how much inventory the elevator could fit.
8 pallets? 10?
According to our operator, it can hold 8000 pounds and he has successfully packed 60 people in there.
The elevator was once a major element of the Sears Roebuck Distribution operations for their mail-in catalog as far back as 1926 . . . the Amazon of its day.
That got me thinking about all the changes that have occurred in retail over the past century.
This elevator and the entire building–now the Ponce City Market–is a relic to such change.
Since Sears stopped using the site it has been a part of City Hall, and is now a revitalized social and shopping market, complete with rooftop bars and mini golf.
For hundreds of workers and their families, the changes that made this distribution center obsolete were scary and life altering. People lost jobs and were forced to move on to other industries, cities, and states.
Today again, huge changes are sweeping through the industry and many companies are being forced to adapt or die. Sports Authority, Toys R Us, and Nine West are just a few of the companies that have disappeared from our malls.
Change is scary. It just is.
But it can also be amazing for two reasons.
The first is that it creates opportunities for people to be there for one another, for retail teams to take care of one another. I saw dozens of posts like the one below right after the announcements of Toys R Us closing up shop.
I could go on for miles. It’s great to see this kind of support from the retail community, especially considering the state in which those families were left.
The second is that it leads to previously unheard of advances and innovations.
Only a few years ago next day delivery was almost unheard of. I can still remember having to wait three to five days before I received an item I had purchased online. Now, next day delivery is becoming standard, with companies such as Michael Kors able to offer natural next day ground for 90% of their orders throughout the US.
This is made possible by another innovation, the use of stores as mini-fulfillment centers that allows companies to spread inventory risk throughout their fleets and offer cheaper faster delivery for their products.
Customers are more informed than ever now thanks to the 5 billion mobile devices in the world and the 80% of consumers that use them to check out prices, reviews, and compare offerings among competitors.
Retailers are also offering technological advances such as augmented reality that allows potential buyers to see how a piece of furniture would look in their home, and package tracking that allows consumers to know exactly where their deliveries are at each stage of the shipping process.
Supply side innovations such as RFID are helping to bring visibility to warehouse and store inventories. Companies such as Macy’s, which used to have 65% visibility with its store inventories and did inventory checks once a year, have now reached close to 97% visibility and are able to perform checks once a day.
We’re also seeing the development of inventory visibility networks, capable of stitching together the inventory data from warehouses, stores, DCs, FCs, and trading partners into a unified source of truth to help reduce out of stocks, safety stock, late deliveries, and shipping costs. This is something that I’m personally involved with at Dsco and it’s amazing to see what innovations a group of smart entrepreneurs are able to come up with when they work together to solve previously unsolvable problems in the supply chain.
Finally, in China we’re seeing fully automated factories run by the likes of JD.com and drones that can deliver packages of up to 1000 kg. This has meant that villages on mountaintops are able to receive medicine in the space of a few minutes that once used to take several hours of treacherous climbing to be delivered.
The goal of constantly and prolifically finding ways to serve and sell more perfectly on behalf of the consumer makes retail and its supply chain constantly creative, and at times, painfully disruptive.
This process has only quickened over the past few years and while it’s sad to see establishments such as a beloved toy store disappear from the cultural fabric or major city buildings such as the old Sears Atlanta headquarters go out of use, the innovations and the revitalizations that follow such changes can only be seen as positives.
Just look at the Ponce City Market–it’s beautiful and full of life.
. . . I can’t help but wonder . . . 100 years from now, what relics of today’s innovations will be turned into revitalization projects and rooftop bars?