Nordstrom inspired by ant colonies for delivery overhaul

Nordstrom has teamed up with two new partners in order to overhaul its delivery services and compete with online retailers.

The Seattle-based department store retailer is working with robotics supply chain company Attabotics and parcel-sorting provider Tompkins Robotics to test-drive an updated facility in California, according to a report by CNBC.

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Attabotics is a 3-D robotics provider for fulfilment centres that replaces the traditional row-and-aisle configuration seen in warehouses.

It uses a patented storage structure inspired by ant colonies, which store items vertically.

While warehouses have long been placed in more remote locations where the cost of land is less expensive, smaller buildings can get closer to busier hubs of consumers, and Attabotics’ space-saving techniques are key in enabling this.

Meanwhile Tompkins Robotics has developed a parcel-sorting solution called t-Sort Plus, which uses autonomous robots that travel the shortest route possible to grab boxes and deliver them to their appropriate destination.

Additional robots can be added during peak seasons, such as the peak trading Christmas period.

“We recognise that the supply chain is a critical component of being able to deliver on [our customers’] experiences,” Nordstrom vice president of supply chain Ngoc Phan in an interview with CNBC at the Newark, California facility earlier this week.

“So we’ve been looking for solutions that fit inside our broader strategy. … It’s about opportunities to get product closer to customers … and avoid extended shipping and fulfilment delays.”

The combination of Attabotics’ and Tompkins Robotics’ technologies uses 90 per cent less space than other alternatives, and allows the company to be more nimble and stock more inventory, according to Phan.

Nordstrom can now store thousands of items in crates in one of Attabotics’ matrices, which can stand at more than 20 feet high. When items are needed, they’re electronically picked and pushed toward Tompkins’ conveyor belt, where more robots help Nordstrom workers sort the merchandise.

Phan told CNBC that the combination is saving workers from walking miles and miles each day.

She added that the technology is also helping Nordstrom process returns at a faster rate and resell a larger quantity of returned beauty merchandise, after items are inspected and cleared, based on a quality-standard test, to be repackaged.

The Newark facility, which has been up and running since the spring, is roughly 340,000 square feet, while a traditional warehouse can span upward of 1.5 million square feet, Phan added.

The delivery trails with Attabotics and Tompkins began with beauty products, as these represent one of Nordstrom’s top categories.

Nordstrom currently offers same-day delivery for certain areas in California, Colorado, Illinois, New York and Washington, but it plans to expand that offering.

In the coming weeks, Nordstrom will install this same system in a new facility in Torrence, California, where it will hold inventory and process orders for its Local shops in Los Angeles.

With stiff competition from online retail giants like Amazon, Nordstrom is hoping a speedier and slimmed-down supply chain will help it rise above other department store customers.

If successful, the retailer could expand its use to Nordstrom’s eight other U.S. distribution centres.

After testing in California, it’s likely Nordstrom will set its sights on New York, its biggest market for online sales, for its next focus.

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