Delivery drivers hate hauling dog food for the same reason customers love having it delivered: it’s a hassle getting it from one place to another.
“It’s hard. It’s annoying,” said Matt Ulricksen, a UPS driver in California. “It often breaks in the box so you can hear it shuffling around there.”
Ulricksen, who has been in office for 18 years, first noticed an upswing in dog food shipments about four years ago – and there’s no sign of it slowing down.
Industry analysts predict that the amount of dog food ordered online will decrease surpass what will be bought in stores by 2025, a shift drastically accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. With around 77 million dogs in the US, this single change in buying habits is having a serious impact on supply chains.
Of course, not only dog food is increasingly bought online. According to the National Retail Federation, e-commerce now accounts for about 17% of U.S. retail spending, and it’s expected to grow about 12% this year.
The nature of online shopping can hide the impact this trend is having in – and on – the real world. Warehouses are emerging closer to neighborhoods and urban centers. Trucks are increasingly rumbling through residential streets. Delivery people visit a few houses every day. All of this is changing the math of the resources that go into American consumption.
Here’s what changes when our stuff comes to us and not the other way around.
How does eCommerce work?
The distance dog food travels for an online order is similar to going to a store where customers can pick it up until it reaches the so-called last mile.
Whether imported into or manufactured in the United States, a bag of dog food goes to one or more warehouses before going to a store or being purchased online. When it goes to a brick-and-mortar store, a truck carries pallets or boxes of stuff to a store, where it’s stacked on shelves for customers to grab, take to the checkout, and eventually toss in their car.
It becomes more difficult when a customer is ordering online and the retailer has to deliver the dog food the last leg – or so-called last mile – to the customer’s house.
The ways to ship a bag of dog food or anything else are so numerous and varied that an entire industry of software companies exists to show these avenues. There are dozens of logistics companies that transport boxes by plane, train, truck and van over almost infinite routes.
The first step is to decide where to ship an order from. Initially, a retailer may have two warehouses from which to ship online orders. Today have many dozens.
Major dog food suppliers like Amazon, Target, and Chewy save money and time by shipping your order from the warehouse closest to you. That’s one of the reasons smaller stores are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with them.
“When you order something online from Amazon, it almost certainly leaves your region,” said Alison Conway, who studies urban delivery at the City University of New York. Smaller retailers don’t have the same reach, meaning your order is more likely to come from further afield. According to Conway, someone with an Etsy shop is more likely to rely on the US Postal Service and their goods will therefore spend more time in transit.
The impact of e-commerce retailers big and small has brought drastic changes to the physical landscape.
E-commerce means more warehouses and more trucks
At the start of the pandemic, Chewy, an online-only pet retailer, was shipping orders from eight warehouses. Today it works from 14.
“We continue to invest in our fulfillment capabilities and customer service,” Chewy CEO Sumit Singh said on a earnings call in April 2020. Singh called Chewy’s “moat,” but the company isn’t the only one his improve shipping skills. As online orders have increased, so has the number and size of warehouses in the United States.
“E-commerce takes up a lot more warehouse space than in-store shopping” because online retailers carry more items, said Anne Goodchild, who directs the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington.
In 2021, real estate giant CBRE put the number of warehouses in North America larger than 200,000 square feet — the big ones that gobble up online retailers — at 11,500, a rise of over 40% since 2010. And they’re barely up in the air. “The very fast delivery definitely brings the camps closer to homes,” Goodchild said.
In Columbus, Ohio, where warehouse housing is booming, nearly one in three residents lives less than half a mile from a warehouse. Columbus residents are twice as likely to live near a warehouse as the average Ohioan, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund for Insiders.
Retailers are getting better at optimizing the relationship between where they store goods and where customers are likely to order from.
It is not easy. When Amazon tried to cut Prime shipping times from two days to one, it wasn’t prepared for the fact that inventory close to customers would strain its warehousing and logistics network. It ended up spending billions of dollars more than planned on transportation.
If there is no warehouse near a consumer, or if a nearby warehouse only has part of the items ordered, the package routes become strange. Have you ever ordered five items online and received them in three boxes over several days? They probably came from three warehouses.
This clutter — and the shuffling of inventory between warehouses required for cleaning — is another reason why the number of large trucks in the US grew 14% from 2016 to 2019, according to the latest available data from the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
And these trucks spend more time on smaller roads. “We’re bringing things to the neighborhood that we used to only bring to stores,” Goodchild said.
The emphasis on speed in e-commerce makes it harder to match the efficiencies of traditional retail, where bulk mailing is done and trucks are filled. And that creates a need for more wheels on the road. “You need more vehicles because you can’t fill them up if you’re trying to deliver quickly,” Goodchild said.
Despite all these extra vehicles, it’s difficult to compare emissions from online orders versus in-store purchases. With the electrification of vehicles and the further development of logistics strategies, the mathematics are constantly changing.
Ecommerce returns are another complicating factor. Nobody has really figured out how to handle them efficiently, so some returned goods still end up in waste streams.
Then there’s Pappe, which an MIT study published last year had estimated responsible for 45% of emissions in e-commerce. That The industry was in full swing in the first year of the pandemic, including by adding recycling capacity to handle the boom estimated 7.8 million tons of cardboard used in 2021 alone, according to Bloomberg and Circular Ventures.
While slowing, the surge in online shopping that began in 2020 has fundamentally changed the way some consumers shop, and warehouses and the supply chain will continue to try to catch up.
The jumble of overlapping networks that bring our dog food to our doorsteps is constantly evolving in search of greater efficiency. But the only thing it can’t do is slow down. E-commerce will continue to grow.
After all, even those who hate delivering dog food see the appeal of letting someone else do the hauling. When Ulricksen’s puppies run out of food, the UPS driver’s wife goes online and orders more.
“You can ask any of these drivers,” Ulricksen said. “They will say it sucks – it hurts my back. They still order it online for themselves.”
Alex Davies contributed to the coverage.