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How Getting Dog Food Delivered To Your Door Explains The Inefficient, Sometimes Absurd, Extremely Convenient Way Online Orders Are Shipped

How Getting Dog Food Delivered To Your Door Explains The Inefficient, Sometimes Absurd, Extremely Convenient Way Online Orders Are Shipped
How Getting Dog Food Delivered To Your Door Explains The Inefficient, Sometimes Absurd, Extremely Convenient Way Online Orders Are Shipped
October 19, 2022   //   

By Emma Cosgrove

Delivery drivers hate moving dog food for the same basic reason customers love having it delivered: It’s a pain to take it from one place to another.

“It’s heavy. It’s annoying,” Matt Ulricksen, a UPS driver in California, said. “A lot of times, it breaks inside the box, so you can hear it shuffling around in there.”

Ulricksen, who’s been on the job 18 years, first noticed an upswing in dog-food shipments about four years ago — and there’s no sign of it slowing.

Industry analysts predict that the amount of dog food ordered online will surpass what’s bought in stores by 2025, a shift accelerated drastically by the coronavirus pandemic. With some 77 million dogs in the US, this single change in buying habits has serious ripple effects on supply chains.

Of course, it’s not just dog food increasingly being bought online. E-commerce now accounts for about 17% of US retail spending, according to the National Retail Federation, and it’s expected to grow about 12% this year.

The nature of online shopping can hide the effects this trend has in — and on — the real world. Warehouses are springing up closer to neighborhoods and urban downtowns. Trucks are rumbling through residential streets more often. Delivery workers are visiting some houses daily. All of it changes the math on the resources that go into American consumerism.

Here’s what changes when our stuff comes to us instead of the other way around.

How does e-commerce work?

The path that dog food travels for an online order is similar to the route it takes to a store, where customers can pick it up, until it gets to what’s called the last mile.

Whether it’s imported into or manufactured in the US, a bag of dog food goes to one or a few warehouses before it heads to a store or is bought online. If it’s going to a brick-and-mortar shop, a truck hauls pallets or boxes of the stuff to a store, where it’s piled onto shelves for customers to grab, haul to the checkout register, and ultimately toss into their car. 

Things get trickier when a customer orders online and the retailer needs to get the dog food the final distance — or so-called last mile — to a customer’s house.

The ways to ship a bag of dog food, or anything else, are so numerous and varied that an industry of software companies exists just to help chart those paths. There are dozens of logistics companies to move boxes via planes, trains, trucks, and vans through nearly infinite routes.

The first step is to decide where to ship an order from. In the early aughts, a retailer might have two warehouses from which to ship online orders. Today, many have dozens.

Big dog-food players like Amazon, Target, and Chewy save money and time by shipping your order from whichever warehouse is closest to you. That’s part of why smaller stores have an increasingly hard time competing with them.

“If you order something online from Amazon, it’s almost definitely leaving from your region,” Alison Conway, who studies urban delivery at the City University of New York, said. Smaller retailers don’t have the same reach, which means it’s more likely that your order is coming from farther away. Someone with an Etsy store is more likely to lean on the US Postal Service, Conway said, and their goods spend more time in transit as a result.

The effects of both big and small e-commerce retailers have 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, shipped orders out of eight warehouses. Today it works out of 14.

“We are continuing to invest in our fulfillment capabilities and customer service,” Chewy CEO Sumit Singh said on an April 2020 earnings call. Singh called that Chewy’s “moat,” but the company is hardly the only one bulking up its shipping prowess. As the number of online orders has risen, so have the number and sizes of warehouses in the US.

“E-commerce occupies much more space in warehouses than store-based shopping” because online retailers carry more items, Anne Goodchild, who runs the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington, said.

In 2021, the real-estate giant CBRE put the number of warehouses in North America larger than 200,000 square feet — the big ones that online retailers gobble up — at 11,500, up over 40% since 2010. And they’re hardly in the boonies. “Very fast delivery is definitely pushing warehouses closer to homes,” Goodchild said.

In Columbus, Ohio, where warehouses are booming, nearly one in three residents lives within half a mile of a warehouse. Columbus residents are twice as likely to live close to a warehouse compared with the average Ohioan, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund for Insider.

Retailers are getting better at optimizing the relationship between where they stock merchandise and where customers are likely to order it.

It’s not easy. When Amazon tried to shorten Prime shipping times to one day from two, it wasn’t prepared for the ways getting inventory close to customers would strain its warehousing and logistics network. It ended up spending billions of dollars more than it had planned on transportation.

When there’s no warehouse near a consumer, or when a nearby warehouse has only some of the items ordered, package routes get weird. Ever order five items online and get them in three boxes over several days? They probably came from three warehouses. 

That messiness — and the shuffling of inventory between warehouses needed to clean it up — is one more reason the number of large trucks in the US rose 14% from 2016 to 2019, as it did according to the latest data available from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

And those trucks are spending more time on smaller roads. “We’re taking things into neighborhoods that we used to just take to stores,” Goodchild said.

The emphasis on speed in e-commerce makes it harder to deliver the efficiency from traditional retail, where shipments are done in bulk 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 when you’re trying to deliver for speed,” Goodchild said. 

Even with all those extra vehicles, it’s tough to compare the emissions generated by online orders with those of in-store shopping. As vehicles electrify and logistics strategies evolve, the math keeps changing. 

E-commerce 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 cardboard, which one MIT study published last year estimated was responsible for 45% of emissions in e-commerce. The industry went into overdrive in the first year of the pandemic, including by adding recycling capacity to contend with the boom, with an estimated 7.8 million tons of cardboard used in 2021 alone, according to Bloomberg and Circular Ventures.

Even as it slows, the online-shopping surge that started in 2020 has permanently changed the way some consumers shop, and warehouses and the supply chain will continue to try to catch up.

The mess of overlapping networks that bring our dog food to our doorsteps is always evolving in search of greater efficiency. But the one thing it can’t do is slow down. E-commerce will keep on growing.

After all, even those who hate delivering dog chow see the appeal of having someone else do the schlepping. When Ulricksen’s pups run low on food, the UPS driver’s wife goes online and orders some more.

“You can ask any of these drivers,” Ulricksen said. “They’ll say it sucks — it hurts my back. They still order it online for themselves.”