Robotics & Warehouse Automation March 2021

28,500 Warehouses To Be Added Globally To Meet E-Commerce Boom

Jason Depreaux
Jason DePreaux

Jason has covered a wide variety of industries in his 10+ year market intelligence career, including power, mobile, data center and healthcare technologies. At Interact Analysis, Jason is focused on expanding our robotics portfolio as a principal analyst in our Robotics and Warehouse Automation team.

Interact Analysis recently launched an innovative new database analyzing the global stock of warehouses. The research found that today, there are 150,000 warehouses in the world. The shift to online sales, exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as demand for consumer goods in developing regions will require 28,500 additional warehouses to be added in the next five years. A significant number of these new warehouses will be direct-to-consumer fulfillment centers necessitating significant labor and automation investments.

Where are the warehouses?

Globally there were 150,000 warehouses at the end of 2020 and roughly 25 billion square feet of space (about twice the size of entire city of San Antonio, TX). Though North America and Europe have a disproportionally high quantity of warehouses relative to their population, most of the current warehouse footprint and future growth lies outside these regions with the burgeoning middle class and demand for retail goods in developing countries.

By the end of 2025 there will be nearly 180,000 around the world. By then, the top five countries, China, United States, Japan, India, and Germany will account for more than half of world warehouse building stock.

Most of the warehouse opportunity lies outside North America and Europe.

The e-commerce explosion

Online ordering had been steadily gaining share since its nascent dotcom days. According to the US Census, e-commerce steadily marched from 4.5% of total retail sales in 2011 to about 10% on the eve of the pandemic in late 2019. Then, a once-in-a-generation public health crisis catapulted online sales to roughly 15%. In less than a year, US online penetration rose as much as it did the previous decade in terms of market share.

The methodical march of e-commerce, punctuated by a recent pandemic-induced spike.


In the case of the marquee names of retail, the big have gotten bigger. In February 2021, Amazon reported its highest-ever earnings, surpassing $100 billion in quarterly sales for the first in its history. Walmart’s online business was up 79% in the quarter that ended October 31, 2020. Retail rival Target saw its e-commerce sales surge a scintillating 154% in the same period.

How much of this e-commerce momentum will survive post-pandemic? It is too early to say with certainty, but it is reasonable to assume that while the unprecedented growth in e-commerce is likely to temper, it will continue towards greater penetration into the foreseeable future.

The future fulfillment footprint

There is a rough rule of thumb that states for every $1 billion in online sales, 1 million square feet of warehousing is needed to support it. While this is generally accurate, it oversimplifies individual industry dynamics. For example, online grocery sales are overwhelmingly fulfilled in-store as opposed to warehouses. On the other hand, major online retailers tend to average under $700 of revenue per square foot of warehousing. Moreover, there is a wide range of e-commerce maturity levels around the world. China’s online sales dwarf the US. Conversely, dozens of smaller countries are a drop in the $2.5 trillion global bucket. Thus, the fulfillment footprint will vary considerably depending on where you look. All-in-all, fulfillment warehouse space is forecast to top 6 billion square feet sometime in 2025.

Direct-to-consumer fulfillment warehouse segment will increase due to the growth of e-commerce

Implications on labor and automation

Comparison growth in warehouse parameters from 2018-2025 with e-commerce and labor as standouts.


The expanding global warehouse footprint, along with the rise of fulfillment centers, will require a 50% increase in staffing by 2025. Piece-picking orders are far more labor-intensive as compared with palletized distribution centers. Together with the challenges presented by COVID-19, competition for labor has been tight in some markets. This is where automation projects to facilitate the increased volumes and decreased delivery times have surged. Still, with an estimated 60% all warehouses being operated in regions where the cost of labor cost is under $10 per hour, this very much remains a manual enterprise.

This article features findings from Interact Analysis’s new research project, Warehouse Building Stock Database. The database is a comprehensive and systematic assessment of global warehouse demand that examines market sizes, footprints/counts/types of warehouses, and labor demand across 30 countries and 8 industries. For more information, please click here.