The pandemic accelerated a program by the big retailer of home improvement, agriculture, pet care and garden maintenance products to jump into home delivery with a fleet of crowdsourced drivers.
Since the coming of COVID-19, retailers of all stripes have had to ramp up their online presence to handle a surge of demand from customers unable or unwilling to visit physical stores. But for Tractor Supply Co., the challenge was especially daunting.
With $11 billion in sales and nearly 2,000 stores across the U.S., many in smaller towns and rural areas, Tractor Supply offers a wide variety of items for home improvement, agriculture, lawn and garden maintenance and pet care. They range in size from decorative planters to bags of pet food to riding lawnmowers. And to make things even more complicated, Tractor Supply promises same-day delivery of online orders within 25 miles of a store.
“We were looking for ways to get into a speedy delivery capability in an easy fashion,” says Greg Mack, vice president of store services and delivery. To do that, the retailer knew it would need to engage with a third-party service specializing in delivery of e-commerce purchases.
Tractor Supply’s marching orders actually predated the COVID-19 pandemic by about two years, at a time when e-commerce was a small portion of sales. Shoppers would mostly order online and pick up at the store. But the advent of social distancing and sheltering in place called for a more vigorous commitment to the e-commerce model, in the form of direct home delivery. Never mind that the object in question might be as large as a chicken coop or kayak.
Within a few weeks of the pandemic’s arrival, Tractor Supply had rolled out its last-mile fulfillment program from fewer than 200 stores to chainwide. Its partner in the effort was Roadie, a crowdsourced platform for same-day, urgent and scheduled delivery of e-commerce orders.
Roadie’s business model relies on thousands of independent drivers, who often will make a delivery on their way home from another job, or if happening to find themselves in the vicinity of the retail store where the item is to be picked up. But Tractor Supply needed to make sure that Roadie’s drivers and vehicles were suited to the handling of big and bulky items.
That turned out not to be a concern. Roadie chief executive officer Marc Gorlin says the platform can book anything from a Prius to a van or truck big enough to handle the largest items that Tractor Supply sells. Still, the service wasn’t entirely accustomed to making such deliveries, especially in rural locations. So it tested the concept in and around Nashville before expanding it across Tractor Supply’s network of stores.
“It’s a lot harder to deliver cattle pens and tons of dog food than an iPhone cable,” Gorlin acknowledges. “But in essence, it’s the same. We look at the crowdsourced vehicles on the road and play a game of logistical Tetris. Somebody might be driving llama kibble in the morning, and Bundt cake pans in the afternoon.”
There was also the question of whether Roadie possessed the expertise and fleet of drivers to serve rural areas, in places where it didn’t have an established presence. “It’s been a work in progress,” Mack admits, although Tractor Supply was encouraged by Roadie’s ability to hire from the communities that it serves, regardless of where they might be. “Not very many cover the breadth [of locations] that Roadie has the ability to do,” he says.
The early stages of the pandemic had a temporary impact on driver availability, although Roadie’s driver base has managed to grow by 30% over last year, Gorlin says. In the end, he adds, finding enough drivers to do the job wasn’t that difficult. The parking lot of a Tractor Supply store contains “all the vehicles you need to deliver.” Customers and store employees constitute “a web of deliverability,” making themselves available to drop off orders at the homes of neighbors or others residing within a short radius of the store. (Even if having the traverse the proverbial “country mile.”)
Mack admits to some initial hesitation over the efficacy of a crowdsourced model for delivery. “It’s new and interesting,” he says. “Lots of other retailers are doing it, but it did come with apprehension of what you get with a crowdsourced versus traditional delivery partner. That’s why we tested small.”
Once the model proved itself, Tractor Supply and Roadie proceeded to scale it rapidly. All things considered, Mack calls the experience of going from 200 to nearly 2,000 stores “a pretty seamless expansion.”
Using the Roadie platform, Tractor Supply initially promised same-day delivery of orders placed by noon. More recently, it stretched the cut-off time to 2 p.m. Confirmation of delivery depends, of course, on whether the item in question is in stock. To make sure of that, the retailer conducts inventory checks of individual stores throughout the day. Mack says that near-real-time capability is essential to making the home delivery program work
Tractor Supply subsequently made the process even smoother by having Roadie integrate with its e-commerce ordering platform. The technology allows customers to schedule delivery, then relays orders to Roadie for pickup.
As the pandemic subsides, the reopening of workplaces could serve to shrink the pool of “gig” workers available to make deliveries on the side. But Gorlin isn’t worried about Roadie coming up short on drivers. “We had plenty before the pandemic,” he says, “and will have plenty after that.”
As for Mack, he believes that Tractor Supply’s home delivery model is here to stay, even when shoppers return to physical stores. Customers have embraced the online sales platform for its speed and convenience, he says, “and we don’t expect to see that retract. There’s an opportunity to go forward, and maximize the model for both Roadie and Tractor Supply.”
Tractor Supply Co., https://www.tractorsupply.com/
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.