Current innovations in last mile delivery echo successful strategies of the past.
By Sarah B. Hood—
Sometimes it seems like we’re living in the world of The Jetsons, the 1960s television cartoon series that predicted robotic maids, flying cars, drones and 3-D printed food. But as change sweeps across the supply chain, many innovations are actually a replay of successful strategies of the past—only much, much faster. This is especially true of last mile delivery, that final leg of the journey from manufacturer to end user.
From the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, most Americans had the option to shop retail, whether that meant through a small general store or a palatial department store in a big city. However, many preferred to purchase goods by mail-order, through the astonishingly efficient catalogue systems developed by the likes of Sears Roebuck.
Goods from hats to hammers would ship through companies like Wells Fargo, by rail, or simply through the mail. Parcels could be delivered directly to private homes, to businesses or to receivers like a post office or general store.
The next wave saw increasing efficiencies in a system that shipped from factories to warehouse facilities to retail stores, with most consumers making trips to one or more brick-and-mortar locations weekly to pick up the products they wanted. Even this era had its unique innovations; beginning in the 1950s and for several decades afterward, the flagship Toronto outlet of the automotive and hardware chain Canadian Tire offered counter pickup of catalogue items only; staff wearing roller skates for speed in the warehouse would pick the goods and carry them to the front cash area for checkout.
With the enthusiastic adoption of e-commerce, manufacturers and retailers are reconfiguring their enterprises to resemble something more like the old Sears Roebuck model. E-commerce sites have replaced paper catalogues, and the variety of transportation methods has increased, but in essence, we are returning to an earlier model, which saw the end user ordering a single item or an assortment of goods from a remote location to be delivered to their home, their workplace or, in some cases, a pickup location like a post office.