Can Amazon be Beaten: How UK Grocery Retailer Ocado Is Holding Its Own

Imagine a retail grocery business run by a deep technology estate. No stores, only online deliveries from automated warehouses. Robots in those warehouses pick most items and send them via high-speed conveyor belt to human attendants for packing.

A human-like robotic hand is capable of handling over 50,000 products of all shapes, including delicate items like produce. This process is all monitored by technology that can alert the human attendants to packing errors. Other “collaborative robots” learn from and assist the human warehouse manager. An artificially intelligent warehouse system collects data and optimizes operations. A computer program even maps the best delivery routes for drivers.

This isn’t the grocery store of the future but a description of the present-day operations at Ocado. Ok, the robotic hand is still in development, but the rest is 100% operational.

I’ve recently returned from a UK market tour where colleagues were buzzing about this unique, online-only grocery retailer. They are the world’s largest and their team of technologists and techies has been working to change the way we shop for groceries for the past 16 years.

Amazon Fresh entered the UK market last summer, and many predicted Ocado’s demise. Yet, the retailer has survived, some might even say thrived. Their 2016 sales beat forecasts, rising 14.8% to £1.3B. This momentum has continued in 2017 with both sales and weekly orders increasing despite a sluggish British retail environment.

I have heard of other similar David vs. Goliath success stories. Earlier this year, I wrote about the fact that Amazon is surviving but not thriving in several other markets including China, India, and Mexico.

This most recent example got me thinking again about how and why homegrown retailers are able to give Amazon a run for their money.

In India, Amazon has struggled to win trial and loyalty in face of rival Flipkart’s entrenched awareness and strong seller relationships.

In Mexico, Amazon has fought to build trust in a market where the cultural defaults are cash payments and brick and mortar shopping. Meanwhile, local competitor Mercado Libre has leveraged a nuanced understanding of local culture to hold their own.

In the UK, Ocado’s impressive tech infrastructure is helping them keep Amazon at bay. The Independent calls the company “superlatively innovative” and they likely embody what the grocery category will look like in the age of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Yet, Ocado has retained a strong compass for human values too. The company is testing delivery via more sustainable electric vehicles. They are partnering with underground urban farms with lower carbon footprints vs. traditional farming. And, they run a ‘Code for Life’ initiative designed to prepare the next generation of workers for the automated workplace.

I don’t want to overstate Ocado’s success. They still have a long road ahead; one that requires them to sustain their growth and license their tech infrastructure to an international grocery partner soon.

Nevertheless, I am heartened to see an innovative player succeed in the face of a powerful incumbent competitor.

Photo Credits: Business Insider,

The Rebirth of Consumer Curation

Well over a decade ago, savvy retailers started to offer edited assortments to shoppers dealing with a growing number of options. Remember Target’s collaboration with Issac Mizrahi or the growth of retail chain Anthropologie? Analysts dubbed this phenomenon ‘curated consumption,’ and it became a standard retail offering.

To “curate” means to "pull together, sift through, and select for presentation." There is a functional aspect to curation, as it requires the working through a volume of choices. It also requires the creative act of making selections that others see as unique or inspired.

In today's tech-enabled culture, I’ve noticed this editing process happening with a new scope and speed. A growing variety of things are being curated with increasingly sophisticated tools  – a dynamic I’ll call Curation 2.0.

The Dawn of Curation 2.0

Whether we are considering where to work, live, or vacation; how to eat, dress, or style a home; or what to listen to, watch, or read – the options available at our fingertips continue to grow. In this cultural landscape, the more technology offers us, the more we need new tools to curate the vast landscape of what is available.

This struck me while perusing a group of the most upvoted product ideas on the Product Hunt Website. (The site itself being, ironically, a curated selection of startup ideas.)

Entrepreneurs clearly recognize a cultural need for help dealing with option overload. Across the new product ideas, the offer of an edited selection of options was a recurrent theme.

I found products to curate everything under the sun: job postings from around the world, minimalist design objects, local spots for travelers, coffee shops for working, art, or weekend plans.

Many of these start-ups are business models yet to be proven, but they complement a litany of more established applications with curation elements like Netflix, Flipboard, and Apple Music. (And of course Pinterest, perhaps the grandfather of curation apps.)

Curation on the Retail Landscape

Curation 2.0 means you can find a great local dive or unique objet d’art, but it is also playing out on larger scale. Where there are masses of consumers, there are companies to help them navigate through a dizzying number of retail categories by choosing only from an edited assortment.

One only need begin with StitchFix for clothes, then move on to BlueApron for groceries, 99 chairs for furnishings, and Canopy for most everything else.

The fashion category is one particularly interesting example of how an industry can be revolutionized by Curation 2.0.

As the pace and scope of fashion has eclipsed the abilities of the average shopper, many have turned to editors for help.

Subscription services like Trunk Club (and the already-mentioned Stitch Fix) and curation websites like AHA and have become an integral part of the way many consumers shop for and buy clothing.

Some of these applications use tech-powered curation. For example, Stitch Fix employs over 50 data scientists to create selections tailored to individual customer tastes. Others, like AHA, rely on human tastemakers to identify inspired options.

Whether guided by an algorithm or a living, breathing person, curated fashion doesn't seem to be a passing fad. One industry expert predicts that subscription services will become a full-fledged fashion retail channel in the coming years.

What’s Next?

As shoppers enjoy curated shopping experiences in a few pioneering categories, their decision-making muscles will atrophy. It is not a stretch to imagine they will desire – even expect – curated help across all their shopping experiences.

Retailers and brands sold at retail should ask themselves how they can leverage technology to become trusted editors. To start, consider a quick-fire brainstorm:

Q1: What do we sell that my consumers would like to consume in an edited assortment?

Q2: What type of curation do my consumers want? (Consider: Customized Combinations? Inspired suggestions from a tastemaker? Community-generated recommendations?)

Q3: Should my curated selections be generated by an algorithm? A human? Both?

What’s Even Further Afield?

Looking down the road, I predict a need for ‘meta-curators.’

As consumers come to rely on curated collections across many categories, the number of requisite websites and apps will once again explode. As a consumer, I would love to use many of the tools I’ve called out above – but who has the time?

The inevitable next step will be to pare down to a smaller number of broad curation tools that work across traditional categories.

Will the next wave of Silicon Valley darlings be applications that crack the meta-curation code?

Until then, good luck and happy editing!