PAST the rolling hills, grazing ponies and sleepy villages of North Rhine-Westphalia, in west Germany, a convoy of trucks converges on Mönchengladbach. Here a hangar the size of 13 football fields encloses the logistics centre of Zalando, Europe’s biggest online vendor of clothing and footwear. Inside, people pack boxes with shoes, jeans and handbags; and thousands of parcels progress at fairground speed up and down a 14km conveyor belt where they are weighed, labelled, scanned and sorted before tumbling down slides into trucks bound for 15 countries. Last year Zalando shipped 55m orders, over 100 per minute, from three such warehouses.
The firm’s founders, David Schneider and Robert Gentz, started by selling flip-flops online from their Berlin flat in 2008. They found that Europe’s market for shoes and clothing was fragmented, inefficient and offline. Soon, they were backed by Germany’s Samwer brothers, whose habit of imitating American online businesses earned them a reputation as the copycat kings of Europe. They noted that whereas Zappos, a firm later bought by Amazon, an American online…Continue reading