The last mile

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As that classic New Yorker cartoon put it more than a decade ago: ”On the internet, nobody knows you”re a dog”, with an image of the latest internet entrepreneur looking rather like a Jack Russell typing in the latest offers from its kennel.

Times have changed and shoppers are rather more internet-savvy these days but for many, the only contact they have with real people connected with their chosen vendors are either on the doorstep when the goods arrive or in the contact centre if they have a problem.

Small wonder then that Nigel Robertson, a founder of Ocado, said when the company started to scale up its operations back in 2001: ”Our only physical point of contact is the doorstep so that has to be part of our value proposition – that has to be the part that”s different.”

Ocado, itself once called Last-Mile Solutions, hired Gist in the early days to handle the bulk of its logistics but not the final doorstep delivery – that had to be achieved by committed company employees who shared the culture and could deliver the required marketing message.

A special case
Grocery delivery is, of course, a special case with large quantities of short-life items usually delivered via dedicated fleets of small vans. Other online or mail order retailers are not so fortunate.

At one time, the postman brought most of our home shopping purchases in his daily haul. The Royal Mail postie and the Parcelforce delivery driver are usually regulars on their beat, or at least they are in my rural part of the country. They address us by name, they know who lives where – so correct address errors – and they know of that safe place to leave anything.

It”s home delivery by third party couriers that”s the nightmare. Despite satnavs and maps, many still fail to find our house, leading to somewhat bizarre telephone conversations as we talk them in while hovering hopefully by the front gate. And those who do find the house all too often fail to deliver a satisfactory point of contact for the hapless merchant who is using their services.

Last month, I finally gave up on a particular wine merchant from which we have bought many pleasant bottles over the years. The reason? The driver, who always seems to be racing the clock, does not have time to ring the doorbell or even place our precious purchases in a safe place. Over the years, we have found cases of wine dumped by the front gate, in front of the cars in the driveway or by the wheelie bins. Strongly worded instructions on the case label to ”ring the doorbell” or ”obtain a signature” are ignored.

Since I work from home, I”m generally in when goods arrive but that doorbell never rings – it can be quite some time before we find anything deposited by the doorstep. The record was four days for an ironing board from John Lewis which had been tucked behind a rose bush.

The cases of wine fared rather less well during this summer”s downpours and extricating bottles and their detached labels from sodden cardboard is not a pleasant task. You can imagine my chagrin in June when Amazon moved its second class delivery business from Royal Mail. Yes, I found my last parcel of books perched on the car when I went out to post a letter.

According to Royal Mail, the contract was lost Wouldn”t it be nice if someone other than grocery retailers cared about that final point of contact ”on price… because we”re not as modern and efficient as others”. Those others may be efficient but perhaps that efficiency has as much to do with increasing productivity by encouraging delivery drivers to work at speed as with investment in technology and slick systems.

While blogs regularly berate the various couriers that online retailers use, the general dearth of delivery options often means they have little choice but to continue to use these less than ideal operators.

Online retail volumes will continue to grow (and forecasts of 20 per cent of all retail sales within a few years already look conservative) despite inadequate deliveries. But, wouldn”t it be nice if someone other than grocery retailers cared about that final point of contact and delivered home shopping purchases with a cheery smile and no need to keep asking for directions. Someone rather like my postman, in fact.

Dr. penelope ody is a regular columnist with SCS and is a retail market specialist

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