Zappos Goes Robotic

I just ran into this video about how Zappos uses robots in its warehouse from a company called Kiva Systems. If you’re interested in some cool technology, take a look at the video. The robots are not just making the pick and pack process more efficient, but they also save a ton of energy costs. There are entire sections of the warehouse that don’t need any lighting or climate control (because humans don’t go there).

My take: The sea of robots reminded me of a scene from the movie I, Robot. But I don’t expect that Zappos will have to deal with any renegade robots.

Seriously, though, there are a couple of key lessons here. First of all, companies can not compete on customer experience alone. Firms need to look at their entire value proposition. While Zappos is known for it’s customer service, it won’t survive unless it invests in world-class operations that allows it to offer competitive prices. Even the most loyal Zappos customers will abandon the retailer if they can get shoes elsewhere for a much lower price.

It’s also interesting to note how the employees are reacting to the robots. Automation can be great in a warehouse setting, but it tends to fail if they’re not fully accepted by the employees. Why? Because employees will either sabotage the devices or start quitting because of poor working conditions.

The bottom line: Maybe there’s an opening for R2-D2 at Zappos.

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

5 Responses to Zappos Goes Robotic

  1. Peter Kim says:

    At one point in my life, a shoe warehouse was a vital part of my career success. When we tried to introduce automation – barcode scanning – to improve throughput and reduce human errors, the scanner would suspiciously break every week. Dropped accidentally, batteries missing, etc. A misguided attempt to preserve a job and negative impact on customer experience.

  2. John Tawney says:

    Beyond the ROI experienced by Zappos, it was enjoyable to hear them highlight some of the “unplanned” benefits of the system (energy savings, happy workers due to the serene environment, reduced shrink, etc.).

    While a fundamentally sound ROI is necessary for an investment of this nature, innovation also has an interesting way of delivering unexpected results (good and bad) that can be valuable to the observant company.

  3. Andy Green says:

    A better mousetrap. Definitely a competitive advantage for Zappos.

  4. Bruce Temkin says:

    Peter: Wow, I never would have pegged you as working in a shoe warehouse.

    John: Thanks for pointing out those additional benefits. I agree, there is often some unexpected benefits from innovation.

    Andy: There are also some other retailers like Gap and Staples using the same technology.

    Here’s a good article in Wired: Autonomous Robots Invade Retail Warehouses

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