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The Olympics may be 16 months away, but already the logistics of keeping shelves filled and deliveries on schedule to satisfy the ten million expected visitors is starting to cause headaches.

For many of us the London Olympics no doubt seems a rather distant event that we needn’t start worrying about until next Easter at the earliest. Not being a great enthusiast for watching athletics, swimming or cycling I must confess that my interest up to now has been fairly minimal. Indeed, the thought of ten million people pouring into Stratford en route to the various stadia at the main Olympic site is quite enough to keep me at home.

Not so, of course, for those faced with servicing the event and hoping to win a decent slice of the £3bn which the forecasters predict Olympics visitors will bring to the economy. That £3bn apparently does not include ticket sales but is the sum likely to be spent on refreshments, meals, hotels and – of course – Olympics souvenirs and gifts to take back home. And all between 27th July and 12th August next year. It adds up to a great deal of spending in a very short time and come 13th August how many retailers or restaurants will feel they really made the most of this potential bonanza and how many will see it as a missed opportunity?

Talk to some of those brave souls who are thinking about how this will all be managed and the prospect is daunting – to say the least. For those 300 or so retailers taking space at the new Westfield Stratford City shopping centre (through which, we are told at least 70 per cent of those ten million visitors must pass to reach the various Olympics venues) then shops full of Olympics gewgaws should be guaranteed to bring in some decent revenues. But what of the thousands of other brands all hoping to make a fast buck? And what of the logistics issues of replenishing fast selling lines in what will be a congested area of London in a very tight window of opportunity? Much needed consignments held up in customs will be of little use if they arrive on 14th August.

Coupled with all the usual supply chain concerns there is also the little matter of mobile commerce. UK retailers are currently falling over themselves in their rush to produce suitable “apps” to make it easy for today’s digital shoppers to buy from their iPhones, androids or whatever. A few clicks, payment via the phone and hey presto the goods will be delivered to your home next morning. Except that a great many of those ten million would-be shoppers sitting in the velodrome or aquatics centre will be very far from home – so will their shopping be delivered to a hotel?

To a collection point at Heathrow, King’s Cross, Westfield Stratford City or where? Will there even be enough carrier capacity in Central to the operations would   be a ‘cloud-based eco-logistics platform’ into which shops and sandwich bars can plug to find the next available lorry to bring goods from temporary warehouse A to Olympic venue B.central London to cope with this potential demand?

Just as important – how many retailers offering the sort of rapid fulfilment today’s customers expect have real-time visibility into their inventory? Not much good telling your potential buyer from Kenya or Kazakhstan that you cannot deliver until 15th August long after they have headed for home.

And what about some of the other more remote venues? Lee Valley White Water Centre (home of canoe slalom), Eton Dorney (rowing), Earl’s Court (volleyball), City of Coventry Stadium (football) and the rest will all need to be supplied with food, drinks, and – of course – plenty of souvenirs. Wimbledon will be home to tennis and anyone who has ever fought their way to and from that particular venue will know only too well what sort of congestion to expect.

This vision of nose-to-tail delivery trucks is already leading some to talk of the need for increased collaboration and “smart warehousing”. Keith Sherry, general manager of BT Supply Chain Solutions, for example, argues the case for a series of multi-use warehouses at strategic locations around London – some possibly temporary – that can provide rapid delivery to the key locations using the minimal number of trucks to try to limit the jams.

Central to the operations would be a “cloud-based eco-logistics platform” into which shops and sandwich bars can plug to find the next available lorry to bring goods from temporary warehouse A to Olympic venue B in the least possible time. Multi-use warehouses are nothing new but attempts to encourage multiple and often competing retailers to share the same delivery vans have not always met with success. If the alternative is trucks stuck in jams and empty shelves just as those thousands of people pour out of the stadia heading for home through the glitzy new Westfield shopping centre then that might just be sufficient drive to encourage a little lateral thinking.

Such “smart distribution” argues Sherry and others like him, could provide a model solution to reduce fuel bills, cut congestion and reduce pollution that would not just meet Olympics needs but could be a model for future urban distribution schemes as well – and not just in London. If so, that might be a rather useful “legacy” to add all those others the London Olympics are expected to deliver.

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