Three Technologies that are Disrupting (Online) Retail

Retail is changing fast and it’s part due to some new, disrupting technologies that we can see at work with companies such as Amazon, eBay or Walmart. Here are three of these technologies:

1. Print on Demand

Long gone are the days when self-published authors needed to spend a small fortune to get their novels printed, when refused by publishers.

If you wonder what exactly is print on demand here’s the basic info: say you’ve written a book. You’ve designed the book covers, you you’ve checked your beautiful work of art for grammar errors and now you wanna sell. If you’ve heard about print on demand you know you have to upload the document in PDF format, sign up for a free or premium service and companies such as CreateSpace or Lightning Source will print that document whenever someone orders your precious book. They keep a share of the revenue, the customer gets your book and you get to brag to your nephews that you are a self published author.

Anyone can sell print-on-demand (POD) books, without publishing large numbers of books, keeping them stored and dealing with the hassle of distribution and marketing. All they have to do is choose one of the larger print on demand services, upload an already fully designed book (complete with book covers, headings, table of contents and all the other things typically reserved to book designers).

Amazon’s Create space

Create Space, an Amazon Company
Create Space, an Amazon Company

Amazon’s CreateSpace features one of the best services reserved for upcoming authors that need to publish their works as fast and cost-effective as possible.  Although anyone can theoretically publish their book by themselves, a certain amount of help with book design, copy editing and of course marketing is usually needed. CreateSpace offers a wide array of services to those willing to pay for it.

The big plus: with CreateSpace the conversion to Kindle format and distribution in Amazon’s market is fast and easy so new authors can enjoy being published on the worlds biggest book market and its new prodigy – the Kindle ebook reader.

Once the user sets up its basic account he or she can start selling. Of course, Amazon will charge 20 to 60% plus a fixed printing amount. No one said writing is necessarily profitable.

Lightning Source

Lightning Source
Lightning Source

Create Space’s biggest competitor is Lightning Source, a subsidiary of Ingram, a company that deals with connecting publishers to stores and libraries. I mentioned that because if you want to see your book in a real library shelf you are most likely to choose Lightning Source.

The company has a remarkable distribution operation with libraries and stores, unlike Amazon, who is still not really in the friendliest terms with libraries, stores or publishers.

Other companies that provide print on demand services are Blurb, a bit more expensive and usually oriented to photo books, and HP’s MagCloud, featuring reasonable prices and fairly competitive printing.

2. 3D printing

iPhone case
iPhone case

We can print books on demand  but what about other things? What if you could shorten your supply chain to just a big 3D printing machine, without any need for factories, suppliers or stocks that might or might not sell?

Right now the 3D printing revolution seems to be more of tech subculture than a real business. But you know what? So did the PC market back in the 60’s.

Here’s something Ebay just launched: a new product called Ebay Exact, a partnership that brings together three leading 3D printing companies (MakerBot, Sculpteo and Hot Pop Factory). Ebay’s users can now browse to a set of products from these companies, choose from a wide selection of materials, colors and options and create their personal favorite product.

This is just a small step into creating better products with faster delivery time and the 3d printing market will soon evolve to a popular solution for online and offline retailers. If you balance production, shipping and import taxes soon enough we will be better off printing, say, a chair than purchasing it from a factory overseas.

3. Robotic Warehouse Management

Kiva Robot
Kiva Robot

Although we haven’t been overrun by sentient robots as SF books and movies predicted – we did shift a lot of work to these machines. With ever growing online retail operations – humans just don’t fit in anymore in the warehouse, as their jobs and responsibilities are shrinking by the days.

Kiva Systems is a company that deals in fulfillment automation. It provides technology and robotic warehouse management to the likes of Amazon.com.

Have a look at how they manage to put their little orange robots to work:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWsMdN7HMuA&w=420&h=315]

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