Unpacking the Grocery Stack

Photo: Getjustin

 

E-commerce has disrupted a number of large categories, including media, electronics, apparel, and home furnishings. If you’re shopping in these categories, there’s a strong and rapidly growing chance that you’re going to buy them online. But that’s not the case for the largest retail category: grocery. For the vast majority of people, filling the fridge still means rolling a cart down the aisles at the local grocery store.

As I outlined in a previous post, groceries are among the last huge e-commerce opportunities. Online penetration of groceries is extremely low. It’s not that innovators haven’t tried—it’s that they haven’t enjoyed significant success. To date, virtually all of the digital efforts to attack the grocery vertical—i.e., the brick and mortar franchises—have followed a very similar model: by building out e-commerce grocery businesses end-to-end, including warehouses, inventory, and trucks. They’ve essentially replicated the grocery store supply chain at great cost and complexity. During the first wave of Internet startups, we saw this centralized approach most famously with Webvan, but also at Peapod, FreshDirect, and more recently Amazon Fresh.

But now a new wave of digital companies is going after the grocery business with a very different approach. That’s why we’re thrilled to announce we’re backing Instacart.

The proliferation of mobile devices is enabling what I call “People Marketplaces”: two-sided marketplaces that connect consumers with people providing specific services.From finding a ride with Lyft, to getting your house cleaned with HomeJoy, home-delivered restaurant meals from DoorDash and Caviar, and instant pet-sitting from DogVacay, the variety and usage of People Marketplaces are exploding. It’s really becoming a thing!

People Marketplaces couldn’t really exist before the smartphone; the efforts of all these people couldn’t be efficiently managed or optimized without that supercomputer-with-GPS that’s now in everyone’s pocket. Today these devices can run sophisticated software that orchestrates tasks like order placement, driver location and logistics, delivery timing, and payment.

Instacart offers same-day delivery from your favorite grocery store via an army of local contractors, often within the hour. The service is expanding rapidly and is already available in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Austin. Instacart is doing this by taking what I’d term a “virtual” approach that requires negligible infrastructure investment relative to other more centralized models; they leverage the existing grocery store infrastructure with a workforce enabled by digital tools.

I know what you’re thinking; I’ve written extensively on how brick-and-mortar retailers will be disrupted by e-commerce companies, and how they’re at risk of becoming dinosaurs in many retail categories. Yet Instacart is partnering with these same brick-and-mortar grocery stores in the delivery of their service. Have we cast our lot with the dinosaurs?

Not. Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have a large advantage relative to e-commerce companies (if they can figure out how to harness it): Each of their stores is essentially a mini-warehouse with inventory widely distributed throughout the country. So we’re making a bet that Instacart’s partnerships with brick-and-mortar grocery stores will be the winning play in grocery delivery to the home, with the ability to fend off competition from e-commerce companies that build out their own infrastructure.

Here’s why we think the virtual model wins in this case:

  • It’s capital efficient – Instacart’s virtual approach to delivering groceries is extremely capital efficient relative to the approach of e-commerce grocery players like Amazon Fresh, Fresh Direct, and Pea Pod. Instacart’s leveraging of existing infrastructure obviates the need for physical capital investment. To put a point on it, Webvan raised $1.2 BILLION  largely for cap ex in their unsuccessful attempt to build a centralized grocery e-commerce business back in the day.
  • Faster to market – Instacart’s virtual model lets them expand to new cities quickly; their market entry strategy requires them to digitize local grocers’ inventory, hire drivers, and acquire consumers. Contrast this with the centralized e-commerce players and their need to build warehouses, buy trucks, buy and receive inventory, hire both warehouse workers and drivers… For these same reasons, Instacart should also be able to service smaller cities more efficiently.
  • Offers potentially superior operations – Instacart’s model is much more simple operationally; an order on Instacart results in a shopper going to the grocery store you selected, picking the items on your list, and delivering them immediately to your door. This should enable them to provide service that’s both high quality and FAST (remember that Instacart is often able to deliver groceries within an hour). By contrast, centralized e-commerce approaches have significant operational complexity. They need to buy, store, and pick inventory that’s often fragile and/or perishable (e.g., fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy) and keep it fresh and undamaged inside their trucks that run around the city all day making multiple deliveries.
  • Capitalizes on well-known brands – Instacart leverages the brands of the physical grocery chains, which typically are well known to the neighborhoods they serve. These chains know and carry the SKUs that people in their community want to buy. In the Bay Area, this already includes national chains like Whole Foods and Safeway as well as iconic local brands like Rainbow Foods and Berkeley Bowl. Centralized e-commerce businesses, on the other hand, need to build a brand from scratch and optimize for the tastes of an entire city.

We’re not alone in thinking that grocery will develop differently than other e-commerce verticals.  Fred Smith ,the founder of FedEx — which re-invented the delivery business — had this to say about the delivery of groceries (as part of a 1999 InternetWeek interview):

 “A lot of retailers are coming to the conclusion that well, maybe the best thing is not a total inventory-less environment but maybe what we do is use the Internet in concert with our bricks and mortars. And that’s what I think will happen, because you have a lot of things that have very low value, and they don’t lend themselves to e-commerce and fast-cycle distribution.

Groceries are the best example of that. Now, maybe there’s an example where you have an e-commerce interface and home delivery of groceries, but those groceries are not going to be delivered from across the country, and they’re not going to be built on demand for your order.”

FedEx was the pioneer of the centralized approach to delivery,jet planes and all. And even back in 1999, he thought the virtual approach in partnership with brick-and-mortar grocery stores was the future of online grocery distribution. Fast-forward 15 years and throw in the smartphone — and we think he just might be right.

I see lots of analogies between Instacart and OpenTable, the business I ran for four years before joining a16z. They are both local, requiring city-by-city rollouts. They both provide convenience to consumers. They both drive incremental business for their retail partners, providing those retail partners with an incentive to promote the service. They both have the potential for network effects. And FWIW, they both involve food!

In addition to these strategic advantages, we as always are making a bet on the founder. In this case, it’s Apoorva Mehta, a former Amazon programmer who is the founder and CEO of Instacart. Apoorva and the team have made extremely impressive progress, leading Instacart to strong early results on very modest resources. This round will give them a deeper war chest to rapidly bring the convenience of Instacart to cities across the country. We look forward to supporting their efforts to revolutionize grocery shopping. Your fridge awaits!

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