Q&A: Understanding Micro-Fulfillment

QA Greg Michael

Given the ongoing trend towards instant commerce, micro-fulfillment continues to be a hot topic in the e-commerce space. We sat down with Ohi’s Michael Witalec (VP of Ops) and Greg Szczepanski (Head of Special Projects, Ex-GoPuff) for a Q&A on micro-fulfillment and how Ohi approaches it.

There’s been a lot of buzz around micro-fulfillment in recent years due to the rise of fast grocers and quick/instant commerce. How does Ohi fit into this trend?

Greg: Ohi is leading the next generation of instant commerce. Our unique distribution model enables brands to meet their customers’ expectations of rapid delivery on their own direct-to-consumer (DTC) websites. By offering a DTC-focused solution that helps brands with many aspects of their post-purchase experiences (centered on a curated instant delivery experience), we stand apart from other fast grocers and other quick/instant commerce models out there by giving control over the customer experience (and data) back to the brands themselves.

So, what is micro-fulfillment with Ohi like?

Michael: Micro-fulfillment is the miniaturization of traditional fulfillment, from both a space and time perspective. We’re in dense urban areas to intentionally shorten the distance to the doorstep, requiring a much smaller footprint. We’re tendering orders in much smaller batches and often interacting with the same person who will interact with the customer, which enhances the end customer experience.

What kind of products or brands work best with Ohi’s micro-fulfillment model and why? 

Greg: While micro-fulfillment works best with non-bulky items and lower SKU counts, as you might expect with inventory being distributed throughout the country in small non-traditional warehouses, Ohi prides itself on flexibility. We’re eager to explore innovative solutions with any DTC-focused brand.

Last-mile delivery seems like a critical success factor in micro-fulfillment. How does Ohi ensure timely and accurate last-mile delivery? 

Michael: Final delivery is critical to success because that’s where the direct interaction with the customer is strongest (and most tangible). We’ve built many strong delivery partnerships that enable us to optimize the final delivery experience for every order. Combine that with our LiveOps team and continuous system monitoring, and you get a big piece of our signature instant delivery experience.

What are some things for direct-to-consumer businesses to consider when choosing a micro-fulfillment strategy or partner? 

Greg: Great question. From a financial aspect, evolving a DTC-focused business delivery system has traditionally been critically important to reach or maintain profitability. Businesses invest deeply in their supply chains to reduce the cost of fulfillment and TnT, and this mentality is pervasive among operations teams. With Ohi, while we are favorable in the cost department for many situations (e.g. because inventory is forward-positioned), we find that the instant delivery experience presents unique ROI beyond cost reduction – in terms of the customer experience, which leads to improved repeat purchase rates, customer lifetime value, and other growth-focused ROI

Additionally, by leveling up their DTC performance with Ohi, brands enjoy greater margins and control over more of their overall business, while avoiding some of the negatives associated with their B2B2C channels, including chargebacks.

Given how important demand forecasting is for micro-fulfillment (because each MFC has very limited space), how does Ohi approach it?

Michael: Very carefully. Space is only a constraint over a fixed period of time, so with Ohi’s  AI-based predictive demand forecasting models and regular input from our brands, we’re able to achieve high in-stock performance with our MFC network. With our hubs, which we’ll talk about more, we’re also able to control the distribution to MFCs in real-time, based on inventory levels.

Fulfilling orders out of (what will eventually be) hundreds of MFCs sounds incredibly complex; how does Ohi keep it simple operationally for clients?

Michael: We learned early on that simplicity was critical to our clients, as they want to focus on growth opportunities and not day-to-day logistics. We borrowed from tried and true methods to launch hubs, which dramatically reduce injection points and aggregate demand for the client. From there, our team handles the more complicated aspects of allocation across the MFC network for our clients.

What are Ohi’s “hubs,” and how do they work with the micro-fulfillment centers?   

Greg: Ohi’s hubs help to facilitate replenishment of inventory to MFCs while simplifying the inbounding process for our clients via fewer injection points. Because they’re actual distribution centers and are much larger than MFCs, hubs maximize efficiency when it comes to the intake, processing, storage, and distribution of goods (to MFCs) for our clients. This means less money wasted paying for temporary storage, dealing with stockouts, or losing customers due to delayed or incomplete orders.

Traditional fulfillment typically involves much larger warehouses on the outskirts of cities. How does having MFCs hyperlocal to customers affect last-mile delivery costs?

Greg: Consumers nowadays want same-day deliveries. Many companies are trying, often unsuccessfully, to meet the demands of today’s customers with outdated fulfillment networks. 

Ohi MFCs utilize small and automated storage close to the end customer to achieve cost savings and accelerate delivery times. There are three key components that allow Ohi to perform this process successfully: 1) a robust enterprise and logistics management system to manage the warehousing, inventory, and order management; 2) forward logistics facilities that minimize travel distance/time/cost; and 3) easy technical integration with clients’ e-commerce platform.

Increasing oil prices have been quite the headline in recent months. How do rising energy costs affect Ohi’s micro-fulfillment cost versus, say, traditional fulfillment with next-day air?

Michael: We’ve been in a dynamic environment since our launch a couple of years ago, with real estate, labor, and now fuel markets becoming volatile. Our model utilizes economies of scale with larger movements of inventory to a forward location (the MFC), reducing fuel on a per-order basis. Combined with our growing use of electric-powered and eco-friendly transportation, we’re reducing our carbon footprint while reducing dependence on traditional energy sources.

It seems like micro-fulfillment might involve a lot of extra transportation/trips – how does Ohi make this sustainable? 

Greg: With Ohi forward positioning our clients’ products in small MFCs around the country, we have substantially reduced the amount of transportation and delivery required on a per-order basis, despite the increase in the number of dedicated deliveries. Importantly, our close proximity to end customers allows us to use eco-friendly transportation (walkers, bicycle messengers, and electric vehicles) and reduce the need for wasteful cardboard packaging. For our residual carbon footprint after those measures, we’re able to use carbon offsetting (through our partner, EcoCart) to provide carbon-neutral order fulfillment.

At Ohi, we’ve flipped the script for e-commerce fulfillment, transforming it from what is traditionally seen as a cost center into a growth engine. Brands join the Ohi platform to deliver powerfully fast, brand-focused, and memorable post-purchase experiences that enable them to grow. Want to learn more about how Ohi enables instant commerce? Get in touch today.