President Trump’s broadsides against Amazon and its alleged freeriding on the US Postal Service raise an important point. Consumers have grown accustomed to the idea of their goods being delivered quickly and at no cost. But someone, somewhere has to pay. The question is who.
Retailers in Europe, especially those that also run physical stores, complain that the economics of home delivery and customer returns are dismal. But their ability to impose charges, directly or indirectly, is limited by customer expectations and competition. At pure-play online retailers such as Asos or Zalando, warehouse and logistics costs typically eat up a quarter of revenue.
Logistics groups will not be offering any favours. Some, such as Royal Mail and Deutsche Post, are counting on growth from ecommerce-related parcel deliveries to offset declines in their letters businesses. Others, such as Kuehne & Nagel, have historically focused on moving truckloads of goods from warehouses to stores. Their scale has given them a built-in advantage. But size is less important when delivering individual items to doorsteps.
Labour accounts for three-quarters of the cost of such last-mile deliveries. Armies of subcontracted workers in effect subsidise delivery costs through low wages and insecure employment. But recovering economies and minimum wage laws are pushing up labour costs, while in some countries moves are afoot to improve employment conditions. Autonomous delivery, via vehicles or drones, is years away.
So retailers’ efforts to reduce margin erosion are focused on the bits they control: stores and warehouses. That may create a “picks and shovels” opportunity. Shares in Germany’s Kion, one of a few quoted companies with exposure to warehouse automation, have tripled since its 2013 IPO. But it has not been plain sailing; the group missed forecasts last year. For now, the winners from the ecommerce revolution are still the consumers.
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