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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!

The news around shopping during the holiday season was dominated by two separate stories. One talked about how traffic to brick-and-mortar stores was well below expectations, and that these retailers were forced to discount tremendously to drive sales. The other talked about how an enormous late surge in packages coming from e-commerce companies overwhelmed the capacity of UPS and, to a lesser extent, FedEx, and caused many of these packages to arrive after Christmas.

But, to me, these two stories are not at all separate, they simply reflect different sides of the same narrative: We’re in the midst of a profound structural shift from physical to digital retail.

The drivers of this shift are simple:

  • Online retail has strong cost advantages over its offline counterparts and is rapidly taking share in many retail categories through better pricing, selection and, increasingly, service.
  • These offline players have high operational leverage and many cannot withstand declining top-line revenue growth for long.
  • The resulting bankruptcies of physical retailers remove competition for online players, further boosting their share gains.

So, how has this shift been playing out? Recent data suggests that it’s happening faster than I could have imagined.

The U.S. Census Bureau publishes what I consider to be the most accurate figure on e-commerce penetration in the U.S. It reports that e-commerce penetration of total retail sales in the U.S. was around eight percent in 2012. But, as I’ve blogged previously, this aggregate figure seriously underestimates the impact of e-commerce in large sectors of the retail landscape. Let’s unpeel the onion and look at the next level of reporting from the Census Bureau, where it segments the retail landscape into six large categories of goods. It’s at this level that things start getting more interesting:

The data suggests that there are two very different patterns going on with respect to e-commerce penetration. The two largest categories — “Food and Beverage” and “Health and Personal Care” — show e-commerce penetration well below the overall average. These categories essentially are the domains of grocery stores and drug stores, and e-commerce (at least to date) has achieved only modest penetration of these massive categories (but Amazon Fresh has designs on changing that).

The other four categories are what I would consider to be the domains of traditional specialty retail categories, the ones that are transacted in the malls of America. All of these demonstrate e-commerce penetration well above the overall average, ranging from a low of 12 percent for “Clothing and Accessories,” up to 24 percent for “Media, Sporting and Hobby Goods.” It’s in these specialty retail categories where e-commerce to date has had its strongest impact.

One additional observation is that the pace of online share gain in the specialty retail categories shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. All of these charts are “up and to the right.”

So it’s clear that a growing share of the retail pie in the specialty retail categories is being captured by e-commerce. Now let’s throw in one more massive complication for brick-and-mortar retailers in these categories: The total retail sales in these markets have been extremely sluggish, and have barely recovered back to pre-recession levels. This is a toxic combination — physical retailers in these categories are losing share of a total retail pie that isn’t growing. The inevitable result is that the portion of the pie left available for physical retailers is shrinking rapidly:

And that’s just what’s happening. The Census Bureau reports that the four specialty retail categories representing total sales of just over $600 billion grew by only $5 billion between 2007 and 2011 (the last date that this level of detail was reported). That’s less than one percent over four years. The e-commerce players increased their cumulative sales in these categories by $35 billion over the time period. This means that the cumulative sales of brick-and-mortar retailers shrank by $30 billion in just four years!

The result of these macro shifts is a Darwinian struggle playing out in the malls of America among physical retailers. Some recent retail news:

  • It’s getting hard to find a physical bookstore, music store or video store these days. In books, Borders has closed, and Barnes & Noble has reported continuing declines in comp store and total retail sales in its second quarter. All major music retailers are out of business. And the Dish Network recently announced that it would close its remaining 300 company-owned Blockbuster stores in early 2014.
  • Office-supply retailers are under pressure, as the paperless office is finally arriving. Office Depot and OfficeMax recently completed their merger, and will likely consolidate stores. Staples reported a four percent decline in comp store sales in their most recent quarter, and has closed 107 stores in the past year.
  • Electronics retailers are facing enormous pressure. Circuit City has closed. Best Buy recently declared that “show-rooming is dead,” as it offers to match the prices of 19 online retailers and all offline retailers. The next day, it warns of potential profit shortfalls from the hot promotional environment. And all of the computer superstores are long gone.
  • Apparel retailers serving the youth market are facing big headwinds. The “Three A’s” (American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale) are all performing poorly, with declining sales and stock prices. It feels pretty likely that a key factor in these declines is early-adopter teenagers turning to online alternatives like Nasty Gal and Stitch Fix.
  • The general-merchandise department store is under siege. Sales at Sears have declined for 27 straight quarters (for you keeping score, that’s almost seven years). And it just announced that it is spinning off its Land’s End subsidiary, following its divestitures of Orchard Supply Hardware and Sears Hometown and Outlet business. Says Brian Sozzi, chief executive of Belus Capital: “Sears is in a steady state of decline. … They’re essentially selling their body parts so they stay alive today.” J.C. Penney continues to be in the intensive-care unit, with declining sales and substantial losses, and the SEC just launched a probe “requesting information regarding the company’s liquidity, cash position, and debt and equity financing.”

The stark reality for brick-and-mortar retailers is that there currently are just too many stores. Remember, these retailers have very high levels of operating leverage, and a meaningful decline in sales can quickly render them unprofitable and eventually unviable. And $30 billion in lost sales is most definitely a meaningful decline in sales. It’s not surprising that few retailers are opening new locations, and that a large number are shuttering existing ones.

The retail world is changing, and we’re seeing creative destruction play out before our eyes. And the speed at which it is happening is absolutely stunning. UPS and FedEx had better start building out their fleets, big time — these trends are only accelerating.

This post originally appeared in Re/code.