Doing Online Fulfillment In-Store Is Harder Than Macy's Thought

Macy's efforts to move online order fulfillment into almost 300 of its stores this year got a look from the Wall Street Journal on Monday (May 14), and the result wasn't pretty: The Journal described the in-store Macy's distribution center in a Paramus, N.J., mall as "a dimly-lit, makeshift packing area" and said workers struggled to find merchandise in the store that exactly matched orders specifying colors with non-intuitive names such as "journey" and "magical." Amazon this ain't.

The irony is that Macy's may already have the answer to its product-finding problem—by leveraging a completely different in-store IT initiative.

The Journal piece described the problems of director of store fulfillment Danya El Zein as she hunted for a Fossil wallet and a Michael Kors purse on the Paramus store's sales floor. While a robot in an Amazon warehouse "can be programmed to find a specific item in the right size and color by reading a barcode, retail jargon can often trip up a human doing the same job by hand. It took Ms. El Zein several tries to find a LeSportsac travel tote in the color 'Journey,' a diagonal zig-zag print," the Journal said.

Fair enough—Macy's doesn't hire robots at the director level. But Macy's does have a plan to roll out item-level RFID chain-wide by the end of 2013. (Reports on this vary—a recent Citi retail analysis said that was scheduled to happen before the end of 2012.)

With an RFID gun in hand, Macy's in-store DC workers should be able to track down exactly the right item almost instantly. If the system is really clever, it should be possible to automatically download the items to be searched for into the gun, so picking out the right merchandise won't even require referring to a screen.

Did Macy's have that in mind when it launched the in-store DC and item-level RFID projects in parallel? The chain isn't saying. But if it was coincidence, it's another reminder that there's no such thing as a standalone retail IT project. Even if they aren't planned to interact, the projects will—either to support or to interfere with each other.

And for the record, Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski—who accompanied the Journal reporter—describes the Paramus shipping room as "clean and well-organized for the flow of taking, filling and shipping orders," but "no more or less fancy than any fulfillment center. I believe the reporter was distinguishing a shipping room from the glitz of the sales floor." So there.