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Futuristic delivery options: how realistic are they?

By Will Gillingham

Now and again, a new era-defining technology manages to slide under the feet of the general public and segue its way into modern society. The touchscreen phone. 4G connectivity. The Cloud. It’s at times like these that you might find yourself thinking something along the lines of, ‘we have that technology now?! I wonder what the next ten years will bring’. Delivery is no different.

In recent years, delivery has evolved far beyond its humble roots. Next-day delivery is now the norm, same-day delivery is becoming feasible, and customers have an increasing level of interconnectivity with carriers, able to track packages in some instances all the way to their doors. And it’s continuing to be optimised. So what does the future hold?

Discussions on drone delivery and autonomous delivery vans, among other things, are continuing to float around the media space. Are these viable, realistic delivery channels that we can expect to be using in the near future? Or are they better suited to sci-fi narratives for now? We approached our community of experts for their insight.

Suspension of Disbelief

Let’s start with the good news: it’s not a hard ‘no’.

As society naturally advances, so innovations are made. It’s inevitable. Whether these will be as outlandish as drone delivery is hard to tell: Gary O’Connor, CTO of Doddle, claims the direction delivery travels in will be dictated by the customer.

He says: ‘The answer depends on the time frame in question and where you are.  In the next two years, unlikely.  However, progress in both alternative fuel sources and autonomous capabilities will require a re-shaping of our urban environment and over a ten-year horizon, that impact will be pronounced, resulting in the need for many new delivery solutions.

‘As retailers grow their investment in technologies enabling personalisation, they are also gaining ever-greater insight into what their customers want. The inevitable consequence being the need for a broader range of fulfilment options

‘For forward thinking retailers the question now is much more around ‘how do I best service a particular customer?’ based on their projected Lifetime Value – rather than on how much it costs to serve an individual item.’

The view of technological development originating from the customer is echoed by Mohit Paul, SVP EMEA at BluJay Solutions.

Paul states: ‘Before embracing the latest tech, most retailers need to focus on harnessing the data assets they already have, which can be used to discover ways to enhance the customer experience. 28% of logistics experts we asked said mobile devices and apps would deliver the most supply chain innovation by 2023. The saying is true – the most influential IoT device is a mobile phone in your customers’ hands. Current examples of leveraging this technology include one-hour delivery slots and parcel tracking, but we can expect even more personalised efforts in the near future.’

If these ‘futuristic’ delivery channels are identified as the best way to service the customer, then perhaps autonomous vehicles and drones could be on the road ahead. Indeed, drone technology has already been proven to be an asset in a variety of situations.

Phone in hand

Drones Work

Looking to China

The UK has a penchant for focussing on cities when launching new technology. After all, they serve as population hubs with state-of-the-art infrastructures. But it might just be this perspective which limits the chances of drone capabilities; the answer could lie in looking at drones as rural solutions.

This is best explained by Darren Ralphs, Content Manager at LiveArea, who notes that drones are on the verge of becoming an active delivery channel in China.

Ralphs: ‘One oversight we’re possibly making when it comes to fulfilment is our obsession with cities. The general practice for concepts like Amazon Prime or, more recently, AmazonFresh, is to trial in urban areas and, if successful, expand rurally. However, it’s quite likely that those living in rural areas have very different requirements to city residents, in regards to logistics and, quite possibly, product.

‘Let’s look to China for a moment. Fewer restrictions regarding data, AI, and other advancements, have allowed China to take a nimble approach to new technology, leapfrogging the West. And JD, one of China’s ecommerce giants, is aiming to make futuristic delivery a very current phenomenon, building 185 drone airports in rural areas. The drones will help products reach consumers in villages, whilst also delivering agricultural products across China.

‘People in these areas won’t have access to the 30-minute home delivery or click-and-collect services available in many of China’s cities. Because of the enormity of these areas and sparse village populations, it just isn’t viable. However, AI-powered drones will make delivery to or from anywhere in China possible within 24 hours, and are expected to cut delivery costs by up to 70%.

‘So applying delivery technology where it’s most needed sounds obvious, but sometimes it isn’t applied logically. Perhaps it’s easier to target the trendy city-living millennials with drone-delivered coffees, despite the fact they’re likely a 5-minute walk from a coffee shop. It may well be more powerful to service those who don’t have convenient access to goods, but want them just as much.’

Levels China

Relief Efforts

Drones have also been proven to succeed in another area, which, while a wholly different vein to fulfilling retail purchases, still falls into the bracket of delivery: relief missions.

Rick Fletcher, Director of Engineering, UPS UK, Ireland and the Nordics, details the benefits of drones in these situations. He says: ‘UPS has explored the use of drones, and we have found them particularly effective in delivering humanitarian aid and life-saving goods including blood and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations that lack conventional roads or dependable transportation infrastructure. We also have used drones to assess damage after natural disasters, and believe there may be uses for them on our facility properties, and inside of our facilities for inventory inspection.’

Drones are already being used and have been proven to be exceptional assets in delivery situations. Surely the UK is on course for drone technology at the very least? Well, according to Fletcher, it’s doubtful.

Fletcher continues: ‘We believe drones could someday provide opportunities for network improvements that generate efficiencies and customer benefits that enable us to grow our business. But drones cannot replace our uniformed service providers, who offer a level of service and human interaction that our customers tell us they value, respect and trust.’

Drones would entirely eradicate the personal touch which is currently a central theme to retail as a whole. And it’s with this shred of doubt that we turn to the bad news: logic.

Drone and snow

Defeated by Logic

There are a lot of steps to be taken before we arrive at something as futuristic as drones. A conversation on their viability wouldn’t be complete without talking about the Gatwick chaos which ensued after just a single drone was spotted in the airport’s airspace. And there are simply other issues to contend with before exploring alternative delivery channels.

Jean Yves Simon, VP Product, AB Tasty, is firm in his view on futuristic delivery: ‘I’m not sure [these channels are] where the most potential is. This technology is still being perfected and regulated - we saw what havoc drones could wreak in UK airports, and autonomous vehicles are still not out of the woods yet in terms of safety concerns.

Mohit Paul of BluJay Solutions supports this hard-line perspective. He says: ‘When we asked logistics teams which technology would deliver the most supply chain innovation in the next five years, drones and blockchain each only won just 2% of the vote. 

‘Drone technology has the potential to bring with it a great deal of positive change. For example, rural areas may gain an unaccustomed advantage in the tech race. Despite the hype, though, the introduction of drone technology could cause a supply chain nightmare if logistics companies are not careful. Many organisations still rely on outdated legacy processes which would make the incorporation of drone delivery a very steep learning curve.’

Drones in sky

Vehicular innovation isn’t likely any time soon, particularly not in dense urban areas. Gary O’Connor of Doddle references those technologies we can expect to see refined in the more immediate future.

O’Connor: ‘In the shorter term the focus for many retailers is on blurring the boundaries between distribution centres and stores to enable them to delight customers with quicker fulfilment while improving profitability by reducing overall stock holding.

‘An increasing number of retail brands are also investing in advanced self-service solutions that eliminate key friction points in the customer journey while maintaining appropriate levels of ‘retail theatre’ and customer experience. 

It’s these technologies which benefit the cost to serve equation by freeing up staff time to focus on value-add activities – generating sales and building brand loyalty.’

And finally, when looking to the future, the environment should be considered in tandem with any decisions being made.

As highlighted by Melanie Harper, Marketing Manager of Comply Direct: ‘Whilst we think about futuristic delivery options for online companies it would be good to step back and educate customers by leading by example on your environmental impact when it comes to deliveries and more. The packaging regulatory reform could benefit our environment; specifically, reducing the environmental impact caused by current packaging use and disposal methods in the UK, particularly plastic.’

Trees in the sun

In Summary

Futuristic delivery won’t take the form of vehicular innovation any time soon. While drones have their advantages and could be a potential revolution in how rural customers are delivered to, they’re not a viable means of delivery in densely populated cities: the human touch would be eliminated, and it would likely be a logistical nightmare.

Beyond that, there are other factors which are in the optimisation queue ahead of new delivery channels: frictionless commerce, self-service options, and faster delivery to name just a few.

The way we’re delivered to isn’t likely to be cut from a sci-fi novel any time soon. But that’s not to say the future isn’t something to get excited about: technology is evolving at a breakneck pace and delivery in 10 years is likely to look a bit different to what we’re used to today. All that’s left to do is to wait and see.

Will Gillingham, Content Executive, IMRG

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