E-Commerce Growth Brings Last Mile Headaches

ecommerceDuring the second half of 2014, Clint Reiser and I worked on an extensive survey examining the omni-channel commerce landscape. One of the key findings from that research was on the growth of e-commerce. According to our research, the lion’s share of revenue is still driven by the store. Brick and mortar locations accounted for approximately 67% of all revenue for our survey respondents. However, when looking at revenue growth, our research tells us a different story. Over the last five years, survey respondents indicated revenue growth of 6% from the brick and mortar channel compared to 47% for e-commerce. Looking ahead, respondents forecasted flat growth for their brick and mortar channel compared to 40% growth for e-commerce. This is a pretty dramatic shift in the retail landscape. It shows that the convergence of channels will be more important as omni-channel operations continue to evolve. It also poses a significant problem for retailers: how to deal with the last mile.

Fedex_ups_uspsLast mile delivery is the final leg of the supply chain. It is the moment the customer finally receives their order. And it is generally the most expensive, least efficient, and most problematic part of the overall delivery process. In the US, last mile deliveries have their own unique set of challenges. Mostly they come down to cost issues, and a retailer’s desire to control the final moment of the brand interaction. There are a few main categories for last mile deliveries. First, is parcel delivery. UPS, FedEx, and the Postal Service are the three main players in this area. These companies are delivering thousands and thousands of packages daily from retailers around the globe to customers front doors and offices. The shipping rates have gone up recently, and these companies provide very little control over the last mile for retailers.

Amazon FreshAn alternative to typical parcel deliveries is in use by Amazon. To control the last mile, and to utilize its massive distribution centers, Amazon has rolled out its own private fleet of trucks to make deliveries. For Amazon, it creates more flexibility in delivery timeframes and reduces overall shipping costs (as Amazon is no longer paying UPS, FedEx, or the Postal Service for deliveries). This is not the first time Amazon has looked for creative ways to complete deliveries. As recently noted in Logistics Viewpoints, Amazon is one of a few companies testing drones for deliveries. The company has also experimented with bike messengers in New York City for small deliveries as well as delivery lockers for customers to pick up items at their convenience.

Another alternative to using the big parcel companies that has taken off is the use of crowdsourced delivery services. Deliv, for example, is a crowd sourced delivery option that stretches across multiple retail segments. This company uses a smartphone app to alert pre-qualified drivers of a pending delivery. The driver picks up the merchandise from the retailer and delivers it to the customer. Instacart is another example of crowdsourced delivery. Based in San Francisco, this company connects personal shoppers with customers to deliver local groceries. Both of these companies are proving that the crowdsourced model is growing. And all of these models show that while they may be expensive, they are doing a good job of satisfying the customer during the last mile.

last mile indiaBut outside of the US, it is another story. The growth of the e-commerce economy is great for retailers, and allows more people to shop for the goods they want, but it poses significant challenges to the last mile. The world’s two most populated countries, which bring an awful lot of buying power, face significant challenges. In India, for example, Morgan Stanley estimates that Indian online sales will hit $100 billion a year by 2020, up from $3 billion in 2013. The difficult part is figuring out the infrastructure to make home deliveries viable. Trucks have a difficult time navigating the crowded streets and the postal service is notoriously slow. One new option in India is the use of couriers to deliver goods purchased from Flipkart, Snapdeal, and Amazon India. But, in order to actually deliver these products, couriers are turning to smaller modes of transportation. In many places, delivery trucks are simply too big to navigate. Instead, couriers are using motorcycles and scooters to carry giant backpacks filled with 100 pounds+ of merchandise. These drivers navigate narrow streets, potholes, and erratic drivers to deliver everything from soda to laser printers. Most people agree that without the use of couriers to deliver these goods, the e-commerce market as a whole would grind to a halt in India.

china last mileChina faces its own set of challenges. The e-commerce market is growing exponentially in China and vast improvements have been made to establish more operations centers across the country. These improvements have made it possible for residents in rural China to shop online and receive orders in a timely fashion. But the last mile still remains an issue. One of the biggest roadblocks for Chinese retailers is the government policy banning freight vehicles and gas-fueled and electric tricycles in downtown areas. This poses a number of problems. First, delivery people can be detained, have their vehicles seized, and receive fines for violating regulations due to the pressure of making a delivery timeframe. Secondly, to combat the costs of tickets and seized vehicles, many companies are simply driving up their delivery costs. These costs can certainly be burdensome to the customer, but at the same time, they are necessary if they wish to receive their package. And third, if the last mile problem is not solved, and vehicles are seized or delivery personnel are detained, the packages may never be delivered. According to the operator of one such delivery service, “if the last mile problem is not solved, up to 1 million packages awaiting delivery could be stockpiled in cities around the country.” This shows just how serious the last mile problem, and the associated challenges are in China.

In conclusion, the global e-commerce market is growing. In fact, according to eMarketer, global B2C e-commerce will reach $2.3 trillion by 2017. This explosive growth brings about new opportunities, new customers, and new challenges. One of the biggest challenges will be controlling the last mile. Logistics infrastructure, economic and political regulations, and competition have proven to be roadblocks for many companies. But as the market grows, the solutions will too.