The Perfect Pair: Footwear & Warehouse Automation

With global sales estimated to reach $250 billion annually by 2025, shoppers’ love of footwear can’t be understated. In fact, if current estimates hold up, annual sales will average 2.5 billion pairs in this short, three-year time period. Key players like Adidas, PUMA, and Crocs are but a few of the companies feeding shoppers’ appetite for shoes of all kinds, from luxurious leather loafers and heels to trendy sneakers of all makes and sizes. But without a keen understanding of consumer shopping habits, and innovative technology to handle orders, these retail giants wouldn't be able to meet growing demand.


Online vs. in-store shopping

The increase in online shoe shopping is only growing. And why not? Once you know your preference and size, it’s highly convenient to reorder from your computer, phone, or mobile device rather than visiting a brick-and-mortar storefront.

Surveys show consumers are drawn to the internet because it offers a larger product selection and lower prices than in-store selections. They’re especially loyal to brands that can meet or exceed on-time delivery promises.

Hundreds of millions of pairs are purchased this way each year, making shoes one of the most popular retail categories in all of e-commerce.

At the same time, by a margin of 2-to-1, shoppers still prefer buying in-store rather than online, likely for the customer service and ability to see, touch, and try on shoes before purchasing.

What makes shoes so difficult to fulfill?

Regardless of the way people get their footwear, consumers demand logistics excellence: wide selection, good value, increased speed, maximum control, and perfect quality. This expectation creates an immense challenge for suppliers of the world’s leading brands. To prevent loss of sales to competitors, companies stock an ever-growing selection in store, and nearby.

Meanwhile, businesses are commonly leveraging their online stores as their own in-house liquidation channels, so SKUs stay around longer than ever before. Shoeboxes can take up a lot of space. Moreover, they all look the same, eliminating the possibility of using visual aids to help track inventory.

For some businesses, they might have a whopping 1 million pairs in stock at any given time.

To surmount this incredible hurdle, the best retailers have invested in sophisticated point-of-sale software, while others have merged their online and brick-and-mortar capabilities to unify inventory access. If they have the right size, style, and color anywhere in their supply chain, a customer can buy it.

Whether in the local storage room, nearby micro-fulfillment centers, or central distribution centers, retailers are increasingly turning to warehouse automation to manage the complex fulfillment of footwear.

Why automation is the best fulfillment solution for footwear

Automation helps retailers handle footwear by providing tremendous improvements in storage capacity and order picking rates.

For example, in a cube-based automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS), the bulky shoeboxes are in bins stacked tightly on top of each other. In this configuration, you can increase capacity by four to ten times by condensing inventory within an ultra-high density cube.

A modern warehouse execution system (WES) further simplifies the fulfillment process. At the click of a button, a customer’s order can be relayed directly to the ASRS. The WES system orchestrates prioritization in real-time, enabling continuous flow for pick, pack, and ship and slashing cycle times down to minutes.

A goods-to-person (G2P) ASRS makes the process even more efficient by bringing ordered items directly to a person or picking station, eliminating half the time typically spent walking. Workstations are typically connected to a conveyors and sorters that further help warehouse workers efficiently complete the fulfillment tasks.

But in some cases, robots even work in tandem with a pick-and-place robotic arm to lift the merchandise from the pick location. In total, productivity can be increased tenfold. And store and retail channels are served from a unified inventory and process.

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AutoStore solutions for selling footwear

Partly in response to the growing global demand for footwear, AutoStore created the 425-mm Bin. It’s tall enough to store shoeboxes on their ends so that more boxes fit in a Bin, further maximizing the already high storage density in an AutoStore Grid. The 425 is compatible with the new R5+Robot, as well as the B1 Robot.

PUMA, the world’s third-largest sportswear retailer, has utilized the B1 at its Indiana fulfillment center. A fleet of 175 B1s help the company provide high-speed delivery while maximizing storage space. Using the system, PUMA has realized a tenfold capacity increase.

The 425 Bin has also proven valuable for German online retailer Arbeitsschutz-Express, which is a major European distributor of work shoes. They use an AutoStore system of 26 R5+ Robots and 54,000 425 Bins to run their fulfillment operations, which has proven to be a tailor-made solution for handling shoes.

The extra space not only optimizes storage capacity, but also helps Arbeitsschutz-Express maintain ordering accuracy and efficiency because it leaves enough room for shoeboxes to stand upright. Labeling on the shorter side of the box is instantly visible to warehouse staff upon presentation at a workstation, ensuring retrieved items are quickly and easily scanned prior to picking.

Even without the 425, companies find advantages using AutoStore. Austrian apparel maker Giesswein, famous for producing lines footwear made of unique fabrics like wool and sustainably sourced wood, encountered a sudden spike in online orders when COVID-19 emerged in early 2020.

In July 2020, they implemented an AutoStore system comprised of 31 R5 Robots and 17,500 Bins (330 mm) condensed into a 2,500 cubic meter Grid. The system achieves a pick rate of 900 items per hour, providing relief to overwhelmed workers. Customer satisfaction increased due to the fast and reliable delivery time. Giesswein has also integrated an AutoStore workstation within a retail store for added convenience.

Cube storage automation is the perfect fit for managing footwear

Whether you sell 100 or 1 million pairs a day, shoes are a challenging category of merchandise to handle. As shoppers continue to purchase both online and in-store , there’s a constant expectation for more selection and even more speed. That means sellers need ample storage capacity and smart technology in place to keep up with the competition.

Outdated manual picking processes are labor-intensive and inefficient ways to manage the heavy volume and exhaustive pace it takes to keep up with demand. By investing in automation, you give your operations team the tools they need to solve space and labor challenges. In return, your business gets a real chance to succeed in the highly competitive footwear market.

Whether in the local storage room, nearby micro-fulfillment centers, or central distribution centers, retailers are increasingly turning to warehouse automation to manage the complex fulfillment of footwear.

Jon Schechter
Business Development Manager, AutoStore
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