In the 15 years since Amazon.com’s initial public offering, the expectations and behavior of consumers have changed profoundly. Many of them expect to be able to buy just about anything online and to get it overnight. Distribution economics make the latter expectation a significant challenge for many US retailers: one-day delivery requires more than a dozen strategically located distribution centers that can fulfill online orders, versus just two or three for two-day service (exhibit).
Subscale retailers do have options. For some, third-party fulfillment relationships are becoming critical—these providers not only bring the required network and distribution capabilities but can also help manage the product proliferation that is a natural consequence of rapid online growth. Other retailers, integrating existing brick-and-mortar locations to fulfill online orders, are using stores for pickup and delivery or converting underperforming stores into mini-distribution centers. Meanwhile, these retailers are enhancing the way they share information and integrate inventory across the full network of stores and distribution centers.