Retail Gets Back to Work
As workplaces re-open on varying schedules, e-commerce retailers flex to accommodate new trends in consumer and business spending.
While many organizations had planned to bring employees back into offices by September 2021, the Delta variant reminded them yet again of the pandemic’s watchword: agility. Many employers have now delayed re-opening.
It’s yet another challenge for retailers responding to changes in products ordered online as employees prepare to return to the workplace.
“Retailers have to be nimble because things are changing fast and it’s not always obvious which way they’re going,” says Craig Ross, vice president of sales for the e-commerce platform offered by TrueCommerce.
Even so, retailers already see an uptick in certain types of “back to work” products purchased online by both businesses and consumers. Some products, including cosmetics and workplace apparel, are in categories that saw a significant drop in sales when people began working from home. Others, such as computer hardware and other technology gear, see changes in who’s making the purchase, the size of the order, and where it’s being delivered.
The challenge for some retailers is the flip-flop between business-to-consumer and business-to-business ordering, reports Samuel Parker, product evangelist at inventory management platform provider Cin7. For example, work-from-home employees who needed to outfit their new remote workspaces typically ordered what they needed online for home delivery and were reimbursed by their employers.
To meet that demand, some brands that typically sell wholesale to retailers began shifting to direct-to-consumer fulfillment. Today, with offices staffing up again, those brands need to maintain that option for those working remotely while returning to filling wholesale orders, too.
Parker is seeing this play out at his Colorado workplace, where people who returned during the summer had new monitors waiting. “During the pandemic, the manufacturer wasn’t selling these monitors wholesale to Office Depot and Staples—it had shifted to selling directly to individuals,” he says. Now they have to resume pallet shipping alongside pick-and-pack fulfillment.
Amazon Business reports an increase in office furniture orders as organizations ease the transition back to the workplace with creature comforts that include ergonomic chairs and standing desks. They’re also purchasing other tech products such as videoconferencing headsets for office use.
“Video conference-based work is still going strong and will continue to be strong even with a return to the office because most people will still be in virtual meetings from here on out,” notes Petra Schindler-Carter, director and general manager for Amazon Business.
Dress for Success 2.0
Retailers are also struggling to understand whether workplace dress codes are relaxing after 18 months of remote work hoodies and pajama bottoms.
Wall Street workers have ditched suits in favor of a more casual look—jeans with a blazer, for example, the New York Times reports. And apparel retailers who figure it out can’t get inventory quickly enough because of supply chain challenges.
“Before the pandemic, retailers could switch seasons and get new apparel from Asia to shelves in four to six weeks,” says Ross. “Now, it’s not only a question of getting the right mix, but they also have to be right about that earlier because lead times are a lot longer today.”
And where do those products get delivered? Pre-pandemic, many online shoppers had orders sent to the office for reasons that include protecting their goods from porch thieves. With hybrid work schedules and fluid delivery timelines, it can be difficult to decide which delivery address to select for that new business-casual outfit.
The delivery location decision could lead to a facilities challenge. “What happens if your mailroom isn’t fully staffed every day?” asks Krish Iyer, head of industry relations for ShipStation. “This can have a cascading effect on receiving and loading docks. I don’t think enough employers have thought about it, especially small to mid-sized enterprises with limited space.”
Retailers can reduce anxiety about delivery dates by giving e-commerce customers in-cart delivery timelines to help them make more informed decisions, Iyer says. Make it possible for shoppers to change delivery addresses or dates mid-order with intercept tools such as those offered by UPS and FedEx.
Iyer also advocates for moving inventory as close to the customer as possible so that it’s easier to pinpoint delivery timing.
But warehouse space is at a premium (see sidebar). Kaspien, which sells private label products and assists other brands selling on large retail platforms, had to make warehouse adjustments to meet back-to-work and other seasonal demands after Amazon reduced its available warehouse space.
“We had to diversify our warehouse and fulfillment options to two to three other dropship locations rather than using Amazon,” says Denise Abraham, Kaspien’s director of private label sourcing.
As part of this strategy, she uses sales data to create “heat maps” that help determine what inventory to place in which warehouses. It’s a strategy that Inna Kuznetsova, CEO of 1010data, recommends because product demand is shifting based on regions that are and aren’t returning to offices.
“There’s a huge need to look at the data on a granular level,” she says. “The big chains have started looking at this by state, ZIP code, and community to drive adjustments on a granular level.”
Warehouses and fulfillment centers are getting creative to address a labor shortage, too. “Companies struggling with a labor shortage might consider temporary workers, going to agencies for help, or outsourcing a portion of their operations to a third-party logistics provider,” advises Angela Jones, assistant professor of supply chain management at Howard University School of Business.
Agile. Nimble. Resourceful. It’s more than gymnastics commentary. It’s the strategy e-commerce retailers need in place to help people return to workplaces that might look a little different than before—in more ways than one.
Anchoring Fulfillment in Vacant Malls
As e-commerce has grown, so has the need for warehouse and fulfillment space. Logistics and parcel delivery has taken the number one spot in industrial real estate demand in almost every region across the country, reports real estate management company JLL.
Retailers and others working to meet consumer expectations for speedy e-commerce order delivery are looking next door—literally—for the solution: vacant mall anchor stores.
“Proximity to population centers, ease of access, land/parking capacity, and infrastructure are the fundamental reasons why developers are drawn to these projects,” says Lisa DeNight, director of national industrial research for commercial real estate services company Newmark. “Some may also have compatible designs for conversion—dock doors, large floor plates, and suitable clear heights—which makes projects even more economically attractive.”
On the other hand, local zoning laws can interfere with this use type. In addition, some properties can’t be retrofitted appropriately and must be demolished and rebuilt. There’s often neighboring community resistance to increased truck traffic, too.
“Engaging with the community and focusing on job creation can help counter opposition, especially if local industrial market fundamentals signal there is low risk with such repurposing,” DeNight says.
Some developers are finding their way around obstacles. By mid-2020, there were 59 retail-to-industrial conversions from New Jersey to California underway, up from 24 in January 2019, CRBE reports.
Newmark’s recent report, Retail-to-Industrial Transformation, cites these examples of mall space converted to Amazon fulfillment centers:
- Randall Park Mall, Cleveland, Ohio
- Euclid Square Mall, Cleveland, Ohio
- Greendale Mall, Worcester, Mass.
In addition, West Virginia’s largest healthcare system, WVU Medicine, converted a Sears store in a Morgantown mall into a distribution center for medical and personal protective equipment.
DeNight expects this industrial segment to remain niche, however. “More projects will be greenlit as long as industrial fundamentals are strong and e-commerce growth continues, but repurposed retail sites will remain a small contributor to new industrial supply because of the challenges such projects face,” she says.
Back to Business
It’s not just consumers turning to e-commerce to prepare for working in an office again. Their employers are, too.
According to a new Amazon Business report, Key Trends Driving Change in the Next Era of E-Procurement, 96% of buyers who shifted more procurement online during the pandemic say they anticipate their organizations will continue doing more e-procurement, even after pre-pandemic business functions resume.
The company surveyed both buyers and sellers to identify patterns that e-commerce retailers can leverage to meet demand for workplace items ranging from technology hardware to hand sanitizer to furniture and office supplies. Chief among them, the report says, is that “buyers want the same fast, convenient, and personalized digital buying capabilities they’ve grown accustomed to at home.”
Other findings include:
- 83% of respondents plan to spend more with Black and minority-owned businesses.
- 39% say improving sustainability is a top priority.
- 50% have more fully digitized their purchasing process.
- 45% have streamlined the purchasing process.
- 34% have committed more spending to a specific supplier.
In addition, of the four buyer categories surveyed—government, healthcare, education, and commercial—government purchasers make up the majority of business types planning to buy more than half of their purchases online this year.