E-commerce Reverse Logistics Opportunities, Challenges

AJ Gonzalez | February 16, 2021

Area Development, Karen Thuermer, Staff Editor, Area Development

As online sales have surged so have purchase returns, resulting in reverse logistics challenges for shippers.

The pandemic has accelerated the retail evolution, and people are shopping online more than ever. In fact, as reported by CBRE, the National Retail Federation forecasted that total online holiday sales would jump by 40 percent in 2020 to $234.9 billion, with up to $70.5 billion of those purchases being returned, thereby challenging retailers as a surge of products are pushed back into the supply chain — a process commonly known as reverse logistics.

As these factors continue to grow, Kris Bjorson, international director of Industrial Brokerage and Retail/E-Commerce Distribution manager at JLL, told Area Development that demand for warehousing space will top one billion square feet. Melinda McLaughlin, vice president and global head of Research at Prologis pointed out to us that online order fulfillment requires more than three times the logistics space of brick-and-mortar sales because 100 percent of inventory is stored within a warehouse, versus on store shelves. “This translates into greater product variety, deeper inventory levels, and space-intensive parcel shipping operations,” she says. “Processing returns contributes to that ratio, as goods returned by a customer are not palletized and, therefore, take a lot of space — and this storage usually occurs inside a warehouse.”

CBRE also estimated in its report that for the average return, reverse logistics costs amount to 59 percent of the original sales price of the item.

“This is why you see some companies allowing consumers to keep the goods instead of returning them,” says McLaughlin. “Also, with logistics real estate in short supply, and demand for logistics talent at an all-time high, companies have found reverse logistics to be space- and labor-intensive as items are processed piece by piece.”

Optoro, a Washington, D.C.-based returns technology software provider, reports in the CBRE study that reverse logistics functions require an average of up to 20 percent more space and labor capacity compared to forward logistics. Consequently, reverse logistics is now a major driver for industrial real estate, says Matt Walaszek, associate director of Industrial & Logistics Research at CBRE and author of the report. He expects this demand to continue grow: “More forward orders mean more inventory is coming back, increasing space demand especially during the holiday season.”

Reverse logistics costs amount to 59 percent of the original sales price of the item.JLL’s Bjorson estimates that as a result, probably 7.5 percent or 75 million square feet may have some application to reverse logistics. “We are noticing that depending on the path of the return, the policy and procedures implemented at the retail level don’t always translate to the industrial warehouse level,” he notes. “Another challenge is not having the technology advancements for shippers to enable early decision-making on returns.”

E-commerce growth is already resulting in an additional 1.5 billion square feet of industrial space entering the marketplace over the next five years, CBRE projects. Walaszek expects that as upgrades are made to newly constructed buildings, those involved in reverse logistics will have access to leasing more Class B space.

“Typically, second-generation space is preferred over modern Class A facilities,” says Walaszek. “Lower ceiling heights are more appropriate since the activities within the space are high-touch with slower processing, and the varying size of the pallet loads makes them difficult to stack or safely store in high racks.”

But finding such space varies from market to market. CBRE reports the Q4 2020 vacancy rate for the overall industrial market at 4.6 percent, with 3.9 percent for non-Class A buildings. This means locating desired space to accommodate reverse logistics activities will be extremely difficult to find, Walaszek says.

Logic would suggest that lower-rent regions in the Central States would be prime for accommodating reverse logistics functions. “But reverse logistics is very seasonal. Holding that much dedicated space year-round doesn’t make sense unless the operators have dedicated their business to reverse logistics,” Walaszek explains. “Even liquidators, whose year-round reverse logistics activities have primarily been centrally located, are now considering bifurcating single site businesses into East/West regional sites.”


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