Zara customers really like ordering online from the fast-fashion chain before heading to a store to pick up their purchase — so much so that shoppers sometimes encounter waits when retrieving their goods. The retailer, seeing an opportunity to make its click-and-collect operation more efficient and less expensive, is turning to backroom robots.
According to the Wall Street Journal, one-third of Zara’s global online sales are picked up in the chain’s stores, leading to long lines in some stores. Earlier this year, Zara announced it would use robots in its backrooms to search for orders and deposit them in drop boxes for in-store collection – a strategy some on the RetailWire BrainTrust saw as having potential.
“In many stores, click-and-collect requires customers to queue up at the checkout or customer service point to retrieve their items,” said Cate Trotter, head of trends at Insider Trends, wrote on RetailWire. “It’s not much quicker or convenient than buying in-store. This seems like a good, specific, task for testing automation in Zara’s stores.”
“I find it just slightly hard to believe that click-and-collect volumes for Zara are high enough to merit the capex for automation — but if they are, more power to them,” wrote Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at RSR Research and Forbes contributor. “It’s the right thing to do.”
But the RetailWire BrainTrust doesn’t see robots as the be-all and end-all of automation options.
“It’s clear that technology is needed to reduce the operational cost of click-and-collect,” said Jon Polin, President of StorePower. “What that technology is, is the $64,000 question.”
“Excellent software is definitely one piece,” Mr. Polin said. “Robots look promising, but still have challenges. Ultimately, the solution may be a mix of software, hardware and custom-fitted, automated click-and-collect pickup points, à la Amazon Lockers on steroids.”
And some questioned if Zara had reached the point at which such experiments were the right approach.
“Throwing robots at the problem should happen only when the processes have been ironed out and optimized for profitability,” said Adam Silverman, SVP of marketing at Theatro. “Almost every retailer would see a significant benefit (in profit, efficiency and speed of service) with purpose-built processes and flawless communication.”
“If this type of bottleneck is a persistent problem, I’d submit that the store format itself should be reconceived, beginning with the proportion of backroom versus selling space,” said James Tenser, principal at VSN Strategies. “It might also be wise to deliver popular apparel items to stores pre-packaged from the factory, to reduce steps in order fulfillment.”
Zara’s competition has gotten more intense as a wide variety of retailers, including J.C. Penney and Gap, have worked on developing faster supply chains. While some fast-fashion chains, most notably H&M, have struggled of late, others, including ASOS and Zalando, have increased sales.
And with Zara expecting a Q4 sales slowdown as Forbesreported in late February, Zara may be even more focused on the need to streamline operations and stay ahead of the competition.
Still whether or not robots would do the trick was up in the air with the BrainTrust, with at least one member skeptical that a Zara-sized store could make use of automation as promised.
“I get it for big box, but for smaller specialty stores?” said Lee Peterson, EVP of brand, strategy and design at WD Partners. “How [will] that work? You’re going to have a robot to put together orders in the back room of a specialty store? Have you ever been in the back room of a specialty store?
“Amazon put over 75,000 robots to work last year, but those were in 500,000-plus square foot warehouses,” Mr. Peterson said. “Somebody please help me understand this Zara idea.”