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Sustainable Shipping and Packing Algorithms

Humans vs Robots Part 1: Amazon’s New Human Touch on Packaging Algorithms

Debora Haskel

The deadline for this blog was fast approaching but putting pen to paper (OK – fingers to keys) had to wait until the holiday clean-up was accomplished and the trip to the local recycling center (aka “the dump”) was completed. Our recycling center requires all non-recyclable waste to be disposed of in special bags that must be purchased from local merchants. The system is intended to promote and encourage recycling because there is no fee involved with the disposal of recycled materials. Therefore, the more we recycle, the less our waste disposal will cost. Gift wrap and tissue paper are not recyclable, so they went into the special bag, along with blister packs, padded mailers, and kitchen waste that cannot go into the dump’s compost bins. The cardboard pile included a number of well-used Amazon, FedEx, and Chewy.com boxes.

As we were loading the car (emphasis on LOAD), I was reminded of a recent Wall Street Journal article about Amazon’s mission to reduce its environmental impact through more sustainable shipping, and what the article referred to as, “the general nuisance of all that cardboard.”

More Sustainable Shipping Requires Help from Manufacturers

One of the most interesting items in the article was about Amazon’s efforts to persuade product manufacturers to rethink packages for online sales. I never thought about this before, but it’s true that most packaging is designed to attract attention on a store shelf. Brent Nelson, Amazon’s senior manager of customer-packaging experience, states, “Almost universally, packaging designed for brick and mortar is oversized with expensive and redundant shipping features.” To see a great example of this, check out the photos of standard packaging vs. “frustration-free packaging” for the Playskool Heroes Star Wars Galactic Heroes BB-8 Adventure Base. According to Amazon, the frustration-free packaging reduces waste by about 80%.

Allbirds is another great example of a product manufacturer whose mission to “find a better way” is evident in the packaging they designed for their wonderful shoes. Their patent-pending “shipping shoebox” helps achieve its mission by using 40% less materials than traditional shoe packaging. With only two retail locations, the vast majority of their sales are online and they have proven there’s a better way to ship shoes than by putting a box in a box.

Even before reading the article, I noticed many Amazon shipments were arriving in padded mailers and poly bags, rather than cardboard boxes. After reading the article, I realized why. Amazon added machines that now create padded mailers on demand to fit smaller items. These items used to go into the smallest-sized box. It was surprising to read that almost half of all Amazon products fit into the new mailers and poly bags.

While much about Amazon seems magical at times, it was not magic that developed their new approach to packaging and more sustainable shipping, it was the human touch. The customer-packaging experience team has been working to improve the algorithms that help decide which box to use and what should be packed in that box when an order contains multiple items. The algorithms can even scan customer reviews for comments about packaging (also known as the reviews I ignore when trying to learn about a product and realizing the one-star review was based on the packaging, not the product).

The concept of teams working with algorithms and machine learning to improve customer experience is the teaser for the first SpeakingDIRECT post of 2018. Check back on January 3 to read about Forrester’s report on “Artificial Intelligence with the Human Touch.” Have a safe and happy new year!

link https://www.iwco.com/blog/2017/12/29/sustainable-shipping-from-amazon/
Debora Haskel


Debora Haskel

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