Retail & Last-Mile: that’s what I write about. Over the course of 2019, I have written around 15,000 words for my column, here on the Milkman blog. It is a pleasure and a privilege to have the opportunity to do so – and I am very grateful to everyone at Milkman. If you have read my column over the course of the past year I would like to thank you, too. Here are just a few things that stand out for me from the last 12 months.
In January I was pushing at a door marked ‘pull’
This year started with me being cynical about the eDOR, a smart door with built-in security (plus hidden cupboards) for your deliveries to be left in safely. It’s not that I dislike it as a concept. At the time I wrote: “It’s fiendishly clever. The courier stays on the outside of your front door, they don’t need to get into your home. Your parcel meanwhile is in a kind of limbo between the outside and the inside, waiting for you to retrieve it. A kind of parcel purgatory.”
I think it’s great that there are lots of innovative businesses trying to solve the challenges of the last mile, such as failed deliveries. I just wasn’t convinced there would be a huge market for it.
In February I was predicting the future
The UK grocery giant Sainsbury’s was expected to acquire Asda, but the UK’s competition regulators wanted a closer look at the deal. Here in Taking Stock, I wrote: “There are some very real reasons to scrutinise the effects of this merger.
“But when supermarkets talk about offering shoppers lower prices due to better purchasing it can only mean one of two things – you’re buying cheap, lower-grade food or the producers are being squeezed.”
Well, the merger was eventually scrapped. OK, maybe I didn’t predict that outcome. But one of the regulator’s stated concerns was that the quality of food might suffer. We all want to eat well. But to do that we need to think about more than the lowest possible price.
As consumers, we sit at the end of a supply chain. Whether it’s food quality or delivery services, if the people further up the chain aren’t supported economically, something will break.
By April I was feeling much more positive
Particularly on the role of drones in shopping and delivery. There has been a lot said and a lot more written about drones being used to fulfil orders. I remain sceptical that this is ever going to take off in a big way.
There are lots of good reasons to automate tasks that are currently done by people. But automation that does nothing more than cut costs is a bad thing. That’s my opinion. Use it to add value instead.
Like the TwinsWheel bot. These bots follow you and carry your shopping for you. They have the potential to be life-changing to anyone with limited movement, whose strength may be compromised, or has other stuff they need their hands for – like keeping their children away from the traffic while walking back from the store.
By August, I was feeling very positive about robots
I don’t think self-driving cars will ever be a significant presence on our roads. But will the technology from self-driving cars simply help power autonomous delivery vehicles instead?
In the US, Walmart is trialling a self-driving delivery vehicle. That’s not the only one – Postmates has unveiled the bizarre-looking Serve which was tested on the streets of San Francisco. You see, you don’t always need to be first-to-market to reap the rewards.
My positive mood didn’t last
By the time the days were getting shorter my mood was growing darker too. In September I wrote about climate change and the CO2 emissions generated by the kinds of vehicle used for retail deliveries. It’s as bad as the emissions from aviation, approximately. I also wrote about the gig economy and the need to treat workers with more respect. As the year wore on, the death of the high street and Brexit also occupied my thoughts.
I don’t know which of those topics I am most likely to write about in the future, but there are some themes that will remain constant. One of them is sustainability. Cutting jobs by replacing people with robots is not sustainable. You can only cut costs so far. Plus, if the people who have been displaced by robots no longer have jobs, how will they buy the things you want to sell?
It’s the same with the issue of the climate. We need a more holistic way of looking at the way we live our lives. Every action has consequences. Whether they are positive or not is up to us. Get it wrong, or decide not to care, and our range of choices will reduce in the future. But if we make the right choices today, we will reap the rewards long after words like Brexit have disappeared into the past.
And so, as 2019 draws to a close, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, and Fröhliche Weihnachten. Last but certainly not least, Happy Hannukah, and best wishes for the New Year.