22 May 2020

The Last Mile

From Two Cents' Worth, 2:00 pm on 22 May 2020

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling when you order something online and worry about whether it will be safe in your letterbox when it arrives? Or you’ve requested a signature and you end up in that frustrating situation where the courier leaves a card because no one was at home to sign for a delivery and then you have to wait for the item to be redelivered.

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Online orders at Countdown’s new eStore packed and awaiting delivery Photo: Supplied

While improved tracking systems are going some way to keeping customers informed of the whereabouts of their items on route, that “last mile” as it’s often called, is still considered to be the most difficult aspect of the online purchasing process. Getting goods into the hands of customers still comes with its own set of complications.

And then there’s the issue, when the whole country starts shopping online at the same time, as we saw during the recent lockdown, the delivery system quickly becomes overwhelmed.

Mark Troughear, CEO at Freightways says that last mile delivery has been a big issue for just about every courier company globally… having the right amount of money per stop so you can afford the resources to do the job properly.

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Freightways CEO Mark Troughear Photo: Supplied

“When an item has to be redelivered you've introduced a whole lot of extra cost and complexity which you're never going to recover upfront.”

Now consider all the other complications involved in the last mile including letterboxes that were built for letters not parcels, multi-dwelling apartments and offices with electronic security systems and intercoms making access difficult for courier drivers and even the limitations of the traditional street addressing system and the scale of the problem quickly becomes apparent.

So how are those at the coal face dealing with the problem?

Troughear says innovative technology is going some way to helping to solve the last mile.

“About five or six years ago we introduced a system to overcome the signature issue where we affix a barcode on to your house in a specific location. When we deliver an item we scan that barcode, scan the parcel, take a photo and we leave the item in a secure location. It’s proven to be very popular with customers. I can't think of a single issue we've had where we've followed that system, and of course it means we only have to deliver the item once.”

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Personal shoppers use handheld electronic devices directing them to the location of each item ensuring orders are assembled in the most efficient manner Photo: Supplied

Sally Copland, GM Digital at Countdown admits the company faces extra pressure when it comes to getting the last mile right. After all, who wants to come home to find melted ice cream or meat that has been sitting on your doorstep for a few hours.

“Getting deliveries right is a really important part of our service offering. It’s a core aspect of what we do and getting the logistics right is critical. We call it the last mile because it really is the last mile to the customer and so our delivery fleet and our drivers are an incredibly important part of our team," she said.

"Our delivery trucks are designed with separate chilled and frozen compartments and then we make sure we optimise our delivery route so that we minimise the distance travelled between our customers ensuring they get their orders delivered really quickly and most importantly, the frozen goods are in fact still frozen.”

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Countdown GM Digital, Sally Copland Photo: Supplied

Communication between the driver and the customer is also maintained throughout the delivery process.

“We send customers advance notification by text telling them the actual time their delivery will arrive so they can plan accordingly. Every so often a customer will tell us they have popped out for 10 minutes so they can instruct the driver where to leave the delivery.”

Sometimes the last mile can have unexpected benefits too.

“We had one driver who knew that one of his elderly customers lived alone and didn’t have many visitors so he put him at the end of his run so that he had time to have a conversation and a cup of tea with that customer. I've had another driver who realised that a customer couldn't actually get the lids off jars, so he made sure he opened them all for that customer before he left.”

While we will probably never completely solve the last mile, innovations such as digital addresses that follow you, improved letter box design for the delivery of parcels, secure drop boxes at multi-level apartments and improved tracking systems will no doubt become the way of the future.

That last mile, its still not as easy as it looks.

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Countdown’s new purpose built eStore in Penrose, Auckland which opened in April during the Level 4 lockdown where online orders are assembled by a team of personal shoppers Photo: Supplied