Robots become the moving force behind Zara’s click and collect ops

Photo: Inditex
Mar 08, 2018

Zara’s customers really like ordering from the fast-fashion chain online 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 a Wall Street Journal article, one-third of Zara’s global online sales are picked up in the chain’s stores, leading in some stores to long lines. 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.

Zara, which is part of Inditex, the largest clothing company in the world, has long used the efficiency of its supply chain to gain an advantage over its rivals. Zara has reduced the time it takes for goods to go from design to delivery to within a couple of weeks. Fast Retailing, parent company of Uniqlo, made a splash last year when it announced that its new design and delivery center would be able to match Zara’s speed to market.

Competition for Zara has increased 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., which has its sights firmly set on becoming the largest apparel retailer in the U.S., also sees value in private brands and speed to market. Last year, Recode reported on a 2015 patent application by Amazon that would allow the retailers to produce garments on demand.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see automation as the key for retailers looking to become more efficient and cut costs in their click and collect operations? Where else might robots be best used along the supply chain to improve the click and collect process?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It’s clear that technology is needed to reduce the operational cost of click and collect. What that technology is is the $64,000 question."
"Throwing robots at the problem should happen only when the processes have been ironed out and optimized for profitability."
"I find it just slightly hard to believe that click and collect volumes for Zara are high enough to merit the capex for automation..."

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14 Comments on "Robots become the moving force behind Zara’s click and collect ops"

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Jon Polin

It’s clear that technology is needed to reduce the operational cost of click and collect. What that technology is is the $64,000 question. Excellent software is definitely one piece. 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.

Bob Amster

Some modicum of automation is always effective in cutting down operating costs and improving efficiency. Let us not forget that this concept is being tested in the field but the final results of the trial won’t be in for a while. Robots have a place in fulfillment centers where in addition to direct-to-consumer orders, product might be picked to send to a store for pickup.

Adam Silverman

The challenge with click and collect (and any store fulfillment orders) is that old store processes just don’t work. For the past few years, all aspects of the process (receiving the order, picking, staging and retrieving the order) have been ad hoc and very manual. Throwing robots at the problem should happen only when the processes have been ironed out and optimized for profitability. Almost every retailer would see a significant benefit (in profit, efficiency and speed of service) with purpose-built processes and flawless communication. For instance, solutions exist today that anticipate when the customer is about to arrive and automatically alert the back room staff of their pending arrival. This ensures product is ready for pickup without the need for expensive robots.

Art Suriano

I think it’s pretty evident that the use of technology and robots continues to increase and it’s growing everywhere. Today we are in the early stages of what the apparel industry will become. One day, all clothing will be custom made, perfectly and quickly. Customers may opt to go into a store to see fabric, designs and colors or order from home and then go to the store for the final custom fitting. It’s starting to happen today and will only grow as we move further into the future. There will be too many advantages for this not to occur — from customers loving to wear custom-fitting clothes to retailers not having to worry about inventory and out-of-stock items.

Zara using robots is part of that evolution already taking place. Many retailers are using robots in some capacity while others are experimenting. All we can do is watch, wait and see how this new way of buying clothes will become part of our everyday lives.

Joel Goldstein

Zara from the beginning has been an innovator. They completely changed how the fashion industry cuts and tailors clothes for the end consumer and now are doing the same to fulfillment. So much of the fashion industry remains “hands on” because there’s a lot of pockets to fill. When a brand cuts those costs out they can often deliver a better product to the consumer if they have the retail path to market already established. Robots are simply a tool, the concept of streamlining a logistical system for a company that changes inventory as fast as Zara is a huge step forward.

Sunny Kumar

The reason for click and collect is speed and convenience. If a retailer’s click and collect service is not providing these core features then it’s not living up to the service promise and using automation may help. This could then be a win for the customers and the retailers.

Lee Peterson

I get it for big box, but for smaller specialty stores? How’s 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+ square foot warehouses. Somebody please help me understand this Zara idea. Drone robots?

Paula Rosenblum

First of all, I can pretty well promise you that Amazon is not going to become “the largest apparel retailer in the U.S.” It makes zero sense.

Second of all, if stores are becoming like mini-distribution centers because the volume of click and collect is so high, it makes all the economic sense in the world to use some form of automation for picking and packing. It’s all about volumes, really.

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! It’s the right thing to do.

James Tenser

“Robot” has emerged as one of the retail industry’s latest worship-words (along with “Artificial Intelligence”). While there’s certainly a trend afoot, my first question about the notion of automatons in store back rooms is, “How much benefit will it take to amortize the capital investment?”

Zara seems to be justifying its test in terms of faster customer service for store order pickup. If this type of bottleneck is a persistent problem, I’d submit that the store format itself should be re-conceived, beginning with the proportion of backroom versus selling space. It might also be wise to deliver popular apparel items to stores pre-packaged from the factory, to reduce steps in order fulfillment.

Seth Nagle

AI, robots, and automation are allowing management to try/test new in-store concepts and find a better use for their in-store personnel to deliver a one-of-a-kind shopping experience.

Three things people hate at retail are checkout lines, OOS, and dim lit dressing rooms. Automation can correct the first issue and more resources can be applied to addressing the other two.

Physical retail is evolving and digital is the catalyst.

Harley Feldman

There are parts of the supply chain where robots are well suited such as that which Zara is doing to get items to the consumer. A more difficult and expensive area for robot usage is at the DC to sort items into a delivery area for packaging. Amazon can afford this as it is the core to what they do, but a retailer for its own products would need to be very large to absorb the cost of outfitting their DC with robots. Other areas that are attracting robot usage are scanning the shelves for current inventory and helping shoppers find things.

Cate Trotter

Click-and-collect has been a popular initiative among customers, but the in-store implementation has been lacking behind demand. In many stores, click-and-collect requires customers to queue up at the checkout or customer service point to retrieve their items. 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.

Sometimes conversations about robotics in-store can be a bit wide-ranging and unfocused. I think the best way to test the impact of automation is by using it for a specific, measurable task. I’ll be interested to see how Zara get on and whether this enables it to up its click-and-collect numbers further.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Managing Partner Cambridge Retail Advisors
5 years 2 months ago

Using robots for picking, packing and processing click and collect orders seems like it might be a little challenging for a retail store, especially for apparel items vs. high dollar, high margin items. Expecting a robot to pull items off the show floor or find items that are not in the proper place in the backroom or out of reach seems like a tall order for a robot. Also, for some items, like shoes, there is a manual process of visually inspecting the merchandise for correct matching shoe sizes in a box or to make sure the item is in perfect condition.

A retail store is not a controlled environment like a warehouse so there are a lot of variables that need to be perfected for automation to work. If it works efficiently, it could be a cost-effective alternative to human processes that are often unreliable assuming the price of the technology is cost justified.

I believe we are a long way from this technology being anything but a novelty at store level today.

Michael Spencer

It makes perfect sense; it’s akin to ecommerce warehouse optimization.

There are a lot of indicators Millennials and Gen Z shoppers are migrating away from Fast Fashion towards off-price and second hand clothing shopping, and models that resemble more the “sharing-economy.” It’s the age of subscription models, not throwaway clothing.

"It’s clear that technology is needed to reduce the operational cost of click and collect. What that technology is is the $64,000 question."
"Throwing robots at the problem should happen only when the processes have been ironed out and optimized for profitability."
"I find it just slightly hard to believe that click and collect volumes for Zara are high enough to merit the capex for automation..."

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