E-commerce distribution is expanding at the speed of broadband, giving a jolt to the broader industrial space market that is picking up but still growing closer to the pace of modem dial-up.
Most of the activity in the traditional distribution space sector has been marked by consolidation, as many shippers reconfigure their supply chains to handle leaner inventories. But booming online retailing and fierce competition from the likes of Amazon are spurring shippers to make bolder moves when it comes to e-commerce fulfillment.
“E-commerce is on everybody’s radar because it’s growing like a flipping weed,” IMS Worldwide President Curtis Spencer told The Journal of Commerce’s Inland Port Logistics Conference last month.
The growth, which is outpacing traditional retail sales 5-to-1, has spurred many shippers to change their e-commerce strategies in the last six months. U.S. online retail sales rose 16.1 percent to $194.3 billion, accounting for about 4.6 percent of total sales, according to the Commerce Department. E-commerce, which makes up about 4.6 percent of total sales, is slated to grow 10 percent annually, to $279 billion by 2015, according to Forrester Research.
Customers’ growing expectation of next-day delivery and free shipping, both offered by Amazon, “scares them to death” and is also putting the fire under traditional retailers, said Blaine Kelley, senior vice president of CBRE.
More retailers are ending their e-commerce fulfillment contracts with companies, such as Amazon, GSI Commerce and Excel, and opening their own hubs or carving out space in their traditional distribution centers, said Kristian Bjorson, international director at Jones Lang LaSalle. The latter won’t work for every distribution network, though, he said.
The retailers are following on the heels of the giants, such as Macy’s and Kohl’s, that have already made significant investments in their e-commerce distribution arms. He said e-commerce has fueled 30 percent to 40 percent of the growth in the Class A — or premium space — market, which has expanded steadily throughout the economic recovery.
Retailers are still wrestling with the best way to handle online retailing distribution because the market is relatively new and requires even more precision and speed than traditional distribution.
Sears, for instance, used to take a “church and state” approach to the separation of e-commerce and traditional distribution, said Jeff Starecheski, the company’s vice president of logistics services. But now the company is pushing more e-commerce goods through its traditional distribution network and fulfilling orders at the stores themselves.
“We have heard for the last two quarters from corporate America, ‘Find a way to use existing space,’ ” Bjorson said. “Many (retailers) aren’t feeling as confident about e-commerce investment, and they don’t have their core strategy figured out, so they are taking smaller steps.”
It’s not just the big players that are driving e-commerce growth. Smaller shippers make up about half of Integrated Distribution Services’ e-commerce fulfillment at its facility near Indianapolis. The other half of IDS’s e-commerce business comes through being the sole provider for Jockey. Smaller customers’ less-than-containerloads are consolidated after arriving at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, and then shipped via rail to its facility. This consolidation on the import side and for domestic intermodal transport saves shippers money by allowing them to tap into economies of scale, said Rick LaGore, the company’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
The 315,000-square-foot distribution center, located near Interstate 70 and I-465, is also in a prime spot for e-commerce distribution — the Midwest. Shippers looking to open only one e-commerce hub often choose the area because many locations have one-day access to either coast, Bjorson said. Indiana also is a right-to-work state, and attracting a regular skilled and seasonal work force is key to operating a successful e-commerce DC.
The focus on finding the right people led CBRE to tap Braselton, Ga., as the best spot for Carter’s, maker of OshKosh B’Gosh brands, to open a 1 million-square-foot distribution center, Kelley said. Data mapping and then following up with in-person interviews revealed the Atlanta area has the labor force for technology-intensive pick-and-packing and other tasks. Plus, the University of Georgia is roughly 30 miles away, allowing the facility to tap part-time college help during peak-shipping seasons.
Choosing a site in a state where customers won’t be charged sales tax is still important, but the advantage will likely fade as more states clamp down. Even Amazon has been forced to strike deals with states, agreeing to build distribution centers in exchange for a limited break on having to charge customers sales tax.
Traditional retailers, including Wal-Mart and Home Depot, are also pushing for national legislation that would require customers to pay sales taxes no matter where the distribution center is located.
In the long run, a solid work force, access to FedEx and UPS air and ground freight hubs and zone skipping are the key ingredients to successful site selection. Shippers’ ability to incorporate e-commerce fulfillment into existing distribution networks, however, has the additional benefit of having high speed for a dial-up cost.
Contact Mark Szakonyi at firstname.lastname@example.org.