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That Whole Foods is an Amazon warehouse; get used to it

Earlier this week, in Brooklyn, near the waterfront, Amazon opened what looks from the outside like a typical Whole Foods store. It isn’t open to the public, however; it’s a new fulfillment center.

“Grocery delivery continues to be one of the fastest-growing businesses at Amazon,” the company said in a statement about the location, noting that it has hired hundreds of new employees to aid in its operations. “We’re thrilled to increase access to grocery delivery.”

Americans sort of knew this was coming. Still, the pace at which buildings of all sizes are being either built or converted into e-commerce fulfillment centers — and closer to city centers — has become a bit breathtaking. According to the commercial real estate services firm CBRE, since 2017 at least 59 projects in the U.S. have centered on converting 14 million square feet of retail space into 15.5 million square feet of industrial space, and that trend is “absolutely going to continue,” says Matthew Walaszek, an associate director of industrial and logistics research at CBRE.

It has played out fairly quietly to date, save for the occasional headline about, well, Amazon, typically. Last month, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported that the ever-expanding conglomerate is in talks with the largest mall owner in the U.S., Simon Property Group, about converting both former and current JCPenney and Sears stores into distribution hubs from which it can deliver its products more quickly.

Amazon needs the space. Meanwhile, Simon needs a tenant that can pay its bills. That’s a tall order right now for many brick-and-mortar retailers that were already under pressure and watched foot traffic disappear entirely with as the country largely shut down in March in response to the pandemic threat.

In fact, despite that Simon recently partnered with another outfit to buy retailers Brooks Brothers and Lucky Brand out of bankruptcy (Simon and fellow mall operator Brookfield are also reportedly in advanced talks to buy J.C. Penney), some view the moves as a means to buy time as it reconfigures its properties to accommodate one anchor tenant.

That exact scenario has already played out at Randall Park Mall in a Northeast Ohio suburb (a mall, incidentally, that this editor occasionally frequented as a teenager growing up in Cleveland). Once filled with gaudy stores like Piercing Pagoda and Spencer’s Gifts, the mall — among the world’s largest enclosed shopping centers when it opened in 1976 —  is now the site of an 855,000-square-foot facility filled with mobile robotic fulfillment systems.

A local outlet reported its conveyor belts would stretch farther than 10 miles if laid in a straight line.

It isn’t always Amazon that’s snapping up these properties, of course. There are a number of other large e-commerce players that are rapidly expanding their physical footprint right now, along with opportunistic developers betting the U.S. will also focus more on domestic manufacturing facilities in a post-COVID world.

There are other big grocery chains that, like Amazon’s Whole Foods, are increasingly focused on developing fulfillment centers — sometimes right inside a store that sees foot traffic. At an Albertson’s in South San Francisco, for example, customers blithely shop around an automated rack-and-tote system at the store’s center that preps orders for pickup and delivery.

To a certain extent, this ongoing shift in use was inevitable. The U.S. has the strange distinction of featuring 24 square feet of retail space per capita. By comparison, Canada and Australia have 16.8 square feet and 11.2 square feet per capita, respectively. “We just have a lot of retail — we are over-retailed — so it’s not surprising that properties are struggling,” Walaszek says.

The pandemic has only poured figurative fuel on fire. Forbes estimates that upwards of 14,000 real-world retail stores will close in the U.S. this year. Meanwhile, during the first six months of the year, consumers spent $347.26 billion online with U.S. retailers, up 30.1% from $266.84 billion for the same period in 2019, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data parsed by the news and research outfit Digital Commerce.

It’s still a niche trend — retail properties being converted to industrial use. While 14 million square feet has been converted in recent years, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the 14.5 billion square feet of industrial real estate in the U.S.

That won’t change overnight, either. For one thing, retail-to-industrial conversions involve buy-in from local zoning officials whose constituents are often concerned about congestion, noise and pollution, among other things. Retail rents are also significantly higher than industrial rents — more than double in some markets — so it’s “a hard sell to a retail landlord to convert to industrial where revenues aren’t going to be as high,” notes Walaszek.

Still, thanks to a confluence of events — from a battering of the broader retail industry to the runaway growth of Amazon specifically –  both big and small fulfillment centers are beginning to spring up and fast.

As Amazon’s first “permanent online-only” Whole Foods in Brooklyn underscores, they may wind up in what seem like the unlikeliest of places, too.

Amazon launches grocery pickup at select Whole Foods

Amazon today is continuing to make good on its Whole Foods acquisition by introducing a new grocery pickup service at select Whole Foods locations in the U.S. The service, which is available only to Prime members, will initially be available at stores in Sacramento and Virginia Beach, but will expand to more cities through the year. Customers will be able to place their orders using Amazon’s Prime Now app or on the web via PrimeNow.com, then pick up in as little as 30 minutes, Amazon says.

Customers will be able to shop Whole Foods’ fresh and organic produce, bakery, dairy, meat and seafood, floral, and other staples, then pick up their order in an hour from their local Whole Foods Market.

This is the same selection of the thousands of items that customers can order for delivery. The majority of in-store items are available across both pickup and delivery services, we understand.

For orders over $35, the grocery pickup service is free. Under $35, the pickup fee is $1.99.

If customers want to get their order more quickly, they have the option of pay an additional $4.99 for a 30-minute pickup instead.

Once they arrive at the store, customers will park in a designated spot and a Prime Now shopper will then bring the groceries out to their car – the customer can stay in their vehicle. The Prime Now app also has a feature that lets the customer alert the store they’re on the way, so the order will be sure to be ready when they arrive.

The pickup service, like Whole Foods delivery, will be offered from 8 AM to 10 PM.

“Pickup from Whole Foods Market is a perfect option for customers who want to grab healthy and organic groceries at their convenience, all without leaving their car,” said Stephenie Landry, Worldwide Vice President of Prime Now, AmazonFresh and Amazon Restaurants, in a statement about the launch.

Amazon already offers grocery delivery from Whole Foods Market across dozens of cities, but this is the first time it has offered grocery pickup.

The move is a direct challenge to rival Walmart, which has been steadily rolling out a grocery pickup service of its own for years. Today, that service is available at 1,800 Walmart locations in the U.S., with plans to reach 2,200 by year-end, Walmart confirmed to us.

Walmart’s grocery pickup service offers shoppers the same general value proposition as Amazon’s. That is, you can shop online for your groceries, drive to the store, then have someone bring them out to you.  Walmart’s service has been especially well-received by parents with small children, who don’t like the hassle of bringing them into the store for grocery shopping, as well as by others who just don’t have a lot of time to grocery shop.

The service has made sense for Walmart’s more value-minded customers, too. With grocery pickup, shopping can be more affordable because there’s not the overhead of running a delivery service – as with Instacart and Target-owned Shipt, where it’s costlier to use the app than to shop yourself. (Plus, you have to tip).

In addition to not marking up the grocery prices, Amazon notes that Prime members can also receive the same 10 percent off sale items they would otherwise get if shopping in the store, and they’ll enjoy the deeper discounts on select items. These savings are available in-store, or when using grocery pickup or delivery.

Alongside this launch, Amazon is also adding a new way to use Alexa for voice shopping from Whole Foods.

Prime members in supported regions can add Whole Foods Market groceries to their Prime Now cart with simple voice commands. For example: “Alexa, add eggs to my Whole Foods cart.”

Alexa will pick the best available match for your request, considering users’ order history and purchasing behavior of other customers when it adds an item to the cart.

But customers will review these cart additions when they go online later to complete their order and checkout. It’s easy to swap the item in the cart for another one at that time.

A report released this week by The Information claimed that few Alexa owners were actively voice shopping using their Alexa devices, but this data seemed to overlook Alexa’s list-making capabilities. That is, people are more likely using Alexa to add items to an in-app shopping list, which they later revisit when they’re back on their phone or computer to complete the purchase. This behavior feels more natural, as shopping often requires a visual confirmation of the product being ordered and its current pricing.

It’s not surprising that people aren’t using Alexa to transact directly through the voice platform, but it is a bit far-fetched to claim that Alexa isn’t providing a lift to Amazon’s bottom line. In addition to list-making, Alexa also helps to upsell customers on Prime memberships, and its other subscription services, including Prime Music Unlimited, the number 3 music service behind Spotify and Apple Music, as well as Audible subscriptions.

Plus, Alexa controls the smart home, and Amazon has acquired smart home device makers and sells its own smart home hardware. It also offers installation services. Those sales, like music or audiobooks, also aren’t directly flowing through Alexa, but Alexa’s existence helps to boost them.

Amazon’s new Whole Foods/Alexa integration will also capitalize on the more common behavior of list-making, rather than direct check out and purchase.

Amazon declined to say which other markets would receive Whole Foods grocery pickup next, how many it expects to support by year-end, or what factors it’s considering as to where to roll out next. It would only say that it will reach more customers this year.

However, as the grocery pickup and delivery services expand, customers can find out if it’s arrived in their area by saying, “Alexa, shop Whole Foods Market.”

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