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The triumph of the "shopkeepers' nation": interview with Sean Fleming, editor at eDelivery.net

by Milkman

About same-day: do you think we'd have it if Amazon didn't push for it? Do you think it's sustainable in the long run?

That's a really interesting question. I think it will be sustainable for a select few. Those retailers who are out in front of the omnichannel race will be like the elite riders in the Tour de France – they will break away from the rest because they have the systems and processes (not to mention the strategy, vision and commitment) to make omnichannel work, and from that they will be able to support more convenient delivery services.

If my analogy comes true there will also be a peloton of ‘other’ retailers, who can’t keep up with the elites. They won’t be able to compete in terms of delivery/collection service, so they will probably end up competing on price, and ultimately that’s unsustainable.

Amazon exerts a tremendous influence on the retail sector; it’s the moon and other retailers are the sea. But I think we would still have same-day, regardless of Amazon, because there is so much competition between retailers to offer shoppers the best of everything – product, price, promotion, and place … which in the 21st Century has come to mean wherever the shopper wants.

The danger for many in retail (and logistics too, now) is that they become too focused on Amazon … what is Amazon doing, how can we respond to the threat from Amazon, etc etc. My message would be ‘stop – you’ll never be Amazon’ (unless you are already, of course). You need to focus on your own story, not on Amazon’s.

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Working at eDelivery you have a privileged view over the last-mile landscape: what's your favourite disruptive model, click-n-collect, pickup, lockers, sharing economy?

For me, it's click & collect - without doubt. As a shopper I like the convenience. But I also like the in-store experience; I've learned a lot from seeing how well some retailers have set up their click & collect service. And I’ve learned even more when I’ve seen how badly some are doing it. It gives you great insight into whether a retailer puts customers ahead of process, or the other way round.

The really interesting developments in click & collect are where retailers and carriers are collaborating – like Adsa's toYou service. That's a great example of the sharing economy outlook in action. Asda has a lot of under-utilised capacity in its network and is attempting to put it to work. I expect we’ll see more of this sort of thing in the next couple of years.

About sharing economy, Europe seems to be making a stronger stand against the uberification of some services. What do you think about innovation vs law vs some "in your face" methods adopted by giants like Uber and Airbnb?

Uber gets a lot of negative press. Often those criticisms come from taxi drivers complaining about the damage to their income. That’s not a great argument, in my opinion. Evidence is hard to come by, but I expect Uber has grown the overall taxi market, not shrunk it. It is cheaper, in many cases, and because of the way the app works, I think you’ll find there are a lot of people using Uber who would never have used a more expensive, less convenient taxi – in London, anyway.

But some things need regulating, particularly where public safety is concerned, and any industry that wants to appear more professional should beware letting its standards slip.

It’s easy to complain that laws are out of date, and that they don’t keep up with technology. But the law should not be written or rewritten to allow new ideas to have a free hand. That’s not what the job of the law is at all.

Innovate or die, or so the saying goes. Well, that’s true. But sometimes ‘innovate AND die’ seems just as likely.

DHL's Packet Copter 2.0

Will you go to Greenwich and try to snap a Starship drone? If you do get one for us too :-)

There are lots of great reasons to visit Greenwich. I don’t know if that counts as one of them. I would be interested to see one of the Starship drones in action in the UK. But not enough to go and find one, I’m afraid.

What do you think of drones: mega publicity stunt or future reality?

I am a devout sceptic where drones are concerned. I heard Morten Villberg of DHL speak at an event recently. He said that to use drones for the delivery of all post in Berlin would require a drone taking off every six seconds. It’s ludicrous to suggest something like that is economically or practically viable. And that’s before you start looking at the very many problems with using air-borne drones in urban environments.

I think drones are going to be great at doing a small number of very specific jobs. But I would quite like it if everyone (particularly the UK mainstream media) accepted they are not a mass market delivery alternative.

I feel similarly about wheeled drones too, I’m afraid. They won’t work in every environment, and they certainly won’t go untouched in every neighbourhood. There is tremendous opportunity for things to go wrong – from vandalism to theft of the whole drone, from it getting stuck in a pothole to being driven into by an inattentive driver.

I’m a little concerned that I’m going to seem like a relic of the last Century, desperately fighting against change. I love innovation and new ideas, but I like them best when they are applied to actual problems that they are actually going to make a difference to.

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You wrote with great attention and common sense about Amazon, so: in your opinion, what are they really up to?

Amazon is the great disruptor. That’s what it’s up to – perpetual disruption.

It started out disrupting booksellers by selling books, and it ended up becoming the world’s biggest seller of books. Then it unleashed the Kindle on the world and started using e-books to compete with the sale of books. Most businesses would never have been brave or visionary enough to undermine the very thing they were selling the most of.

In my opinion, Amazon will not become a carrier that competes with FedEx and UPS. Nor will it become a carrier that competes with leading domestic operators (such as Royal Mail or Yodel in the UK). It could if it wanted to, but why on earth would it want to? I think its ambitions are actually quite modest, not as outlandish as some media outlets would like to think.

I expect to see Amazon increase its delivery capability and capacity; it will continue to operate a mixed delivery channel, and be the default for delivery in built-up areas.

UK seems to be a very fertile ground for novelties: Doddle, Deliveroo, GFS Checkout, what makes the ecosystem so fertile?

Well, Napoleon Bonaparte once described this country as a nation of shopkeepers, maybe that’s got something to do with it.

The UK retail sector is very competitive, and it always has been. Competition spawns ideas, and ecosystems can quickly become self-propelling centres of excellence.

For the size of the country, there are a lot of people here – and that’s significant. High population density means things like home delivery can operate with lower overheads, and that’s even more important where things like same-day and ultra-fast delivery is concerned.

What would you say to those who cry the imminent death of brick 'n’ mortar? Is it really dying?

I’d say they’re about 15 years behind the times with opinions like that.

The role of the store will change – it has already started happening. Not that long ago stores were shops that held stock. Now they are the place that shoppers go when they are deciding what to buy and who to buy it from. The in-store experience is perhaps more important now than ever before; the purchase is increasingly a deferred action that takes place back in the shopper’s home. If the shopper enters a store with no intention to buy immediately you'd better not give them any reasons to walk out feeling anything less than enthusiastic about you.

Consider two significant UK retailers – Argos and John Lewis. Both have strong service offerings built on the advantages their store networks give them, from customer experience to delivery and collection capability. And those are important considerations in developing great customer relationships.

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Can you name some T&L Startups to watch for 2016?

Doddle isn’t a startup anymore, but I think that’s an interesting business and one that a lot of people could learn from. Doddle has built a service offering on top of an existing infrastructure (railway stations and lots of people passing through them). No one has had to learn a new way to behave, no one has to go out of their way, they didn’t have to build the railway stations. It’s simple idea and it’s cleverly located.

One actual startup I met at the eDelivery Conference last year was LocPin, which offers geo-location derived address details. The UK is covered by post codes that work really well – they are specific to particular areas. But once you’re away from towns and cities they start to become less reliable for courier drivers. Even in built-up environments, some properties are hard to find.

Most delivery is done by way of sat-nav devices, which are great in the majority of places. But they have their limitations. The LocPin system uses unique identifiers to link precise GPS coordinates with things like your mobile phone number or email address.

I think it’s got interesting possibilities that will take it outside of the retail sector too.

to read Sean editorials go to eDelivery.net

#Future of Last Mile

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