Friday, April 13, 2012

Amazon (AMZN): Playing Offense or Defense? Part I. Kiva Robots

In the interest of writing time, I'm skipping over Parts G (Technical talent to extend market dominance over the burgeoning field of cloud computing) and H (More server hardware infrastructure to attract more cloud computing customers). So, we'll hit "I" below and then sum things up in a later post. 

I. Little (expensive!) orange robots that will drastically reduce the company's dependence on (expensive!) manpower (and air conditioning) over time?

When compared to companies like Walmart - frequently skewered by press critics and interest groups for all sorts of sins, fairly at times and overstated at others - Amazon has benefited from little critique of its business practices. But its growth and success has opened the gates to critics of all shapes and sizes, and much of what they hurl at Amazon is fair.

The big story from last summer came from a small newspaper in Pennsylvania that caught whiff of Amazon's stingy, almost Dickensian treatment of its warehouse workers in Allentown. As reported here, Amazon worked its people hard and in miserable conditions with little regard to their well-being. The story took the glean off the Amazon halo, bringing out more criticism. The title of this Mother Jones expose published in February 2012, I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave, says it all. And more recently, Amazon's backyard paper, the Seattle Times, has been running a series of articles called Behind the  Smile

I'm going to suspend any desire to rage against the Amazon machine here, looking at this instead through the dispassionate lens of a business owner. Put simply: Amazon has a labor problem that could cause grievous injury to its otherwise sublime brand perception with customers. 

In light of this, what would you do as Jeff Bezos et al. if presented with the opportunity to 1. introduce tremendous efficiencies into fulfillment center operations; 2. simultaneously reduce long-term costs; and 3. get rid of this pesky labor-cum-PR problem?

Enter Kiva Systems with its little orange robots.

Once again, I turn to for its insights. Scot Wingo, CEO of Amazon partner ChannelAdvisor, has working knowledge of both businesses and imagined the following dialog among logistics gurus at Amazon, Zappos and Quidsi (both Amazon subsidiaries uses Kiva robots) in a recent blog entry (link):

Amazon super-star DC operation manager: I heard you guys had a pretty efficient warehouse - we have been building and operating warehouses for 10yrs and we think we've got about every bit of juice squeezed out. Let me see your numbers.
Zappos super-star DC guy: Do you guys use robots? We do... Here are our numbers.
Amazon super DC guy: (long pause)....... This can't be right, you must have a different way of measuring everything. These numbers are more than double ours.

Quidsi super-star DC guy: weird, we have the same numbers as the zappos guys, but we are on version 4.2 of Kiva so ours are a bit better.
Amazon super DC guy: Ok, ok, but your labor has got to be twice ours or more, you guys running four shifts?
Zappos and Quidsi guys: Well, if you look at our cost/order it's X and our number of employees are actually 20% of yours.
Amazon super DC guy: (sheepishly) ummmm so tell me more about this Kiva robotic system again...
<10 days later>
Amazon super DC guy: (on phone with Kiva) Yes, how much would it cost to deploy this system in 50 domestic DCs and say 20-30 internationally? Ok, $5m/warehouse, ok.
Amazon super-DC guy: Mr. Bezos. You know every year we've been able to get 10% improvement on our DC metrics. Well, I figured out how we can double the productivity of our warehouses and significantly reduce our costs, but it's going to cost us $600m. I know that's a big number sir, but what if we don't have to build 20 more warehouses this year because of it? My calculations have the payback on this as less than 18 months.

Bezos: (after picking apart the numbers, touring Zappos/Quidsi and falling in love with some orange 'bots) Instead of licensing this, we should just buy the whole dang company, do you realize what a huge strategic advantage this would give us over everyone? Plus we can make our customers happier with fewer error rates and even deliver products faster than we do today. Think of it - one day delivery around the country powered by robots at a cost that is less than what our competitors pay for 3 day delivery!
(Insert Bezos laugh)

So Amazon ponies up $750 million to buy Kiva systems. Assuming the technology works as advertised by Scot Wingo, there are tremendous efficiency benefits that will ultimately improve order-to-delivery time for customers, decrease costs, get more throughput from each fulfillment center, and...

...Potentially allow Amazon to get rid of a lot of full-time and seasonal warehouse wage earners. If Wingo is correct, up to 80 percent of the workers will become redundant to the robots. These workers, while earning maybe $10-$15 an hour, are both an expense and a liability to the company. The expense side is obvious, but the longer term liability is the clincher. It's doubtful Amazon can continue paying low wages, contracting out for labor to avoid paying market rates and providing benefits, and being creative to prevent unionizing efforts from taking hold. To date, they've built warehouses in locations offering tax incentives, cheap rents, and cheap labor because the areas are desperate to create jobs for low-skill workers. It won't be like that forever. Eventually labor figures out how to organize, and that will complicate Amazon's operations and its goal to be low-cost, low-price.

The price tag is huge, but Amazon sees those little orange robots as game-changing. And based on my cursory analysis, I tend to agree.

Conclusion: Definitely a matter of leaning into investments in itself. This is Amazon playing offense with a bold, expensive bet.

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