E-tailers’ 2005 must begin with a last-mile resolution

Christmas may have proved lucrative for online retailers, but the delivery service of goods purchased still leaves a lot to be desired, says Robert Dwek

My, don’t the years pass quickly? It is now a decade since I, and many others, started using e-mail seriously. My earliest e-mails are full of anxiety about the great unknown: how much is this amusing little distraction costing?

And now, here we are, another post-Christmas online shopping bonanza in the bag, and all the talk these days is of how much the internet is saving us.

So, here then are a few start-of-the-year musings with which to ring in my second decade online.

The last mile is still the weakest link – by far. I’m talking about the delivery of goods bought online, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Online retailers and their various organisations would have us believe that courier companies and a chaotic postal service are mere hiccups along the way to e-tail nirvana.

However, the shocking reality is that many consumers will have been seriously inconvenienced over the festive period by goods that didn’t arrive when promised. This meant either traipsing off to far-flung sorting offices or, in the worst cases, being forced to buy duplicate presents.

The problem is very simple: too many delivery companies are stuck in the Stone Age. They act as if the mobile phone had never been invented and their underpaid drivers are not motivated to use any initiative at all. At the merest whiff of inconvenience they abort the delivery and thus initiate the consumer’s nightmare.

The e-tailers I have questioned about this try to hide behind their distant relationship with the delivery boys, but that, of course, won’t wash. What they mean is that they have cut margins to the bone and can’t afford to get heavy with the last-mile brigade, as they don’t want to pay a penny more for their services.

This is a far cry from the dot-com days when US-based online couriers promised us the moon with their customer-centric approach. Their delivery staff were also stakeholders in the business and thus empowered enough to care about customer satisfaction. Such a shame they went the way of the dinosaurs when it became obvious that the business model was just too customer-focused.

Clearly, we need a revolution in the last mile so that it doesn’t embarrass the whole slick and shiny online experience quite so much. Yes, there are tricky economics to consider, but I would wager there must be a massive advantage in being the first mover here. Just imagine: an e-tailer that didn’t distance itself from the courier company it keeps! Now that really would be a unique selling point.

Talking of USPs, have you experienced Apple’s new shop on London’s Regent Street? I shouldn’t call it a shop, I suppose, since it’s more of a showroom-cum-palace-cum-place of worship for the faithful. It pains me somewhat to talk about this since I finally left the Apple religion in 2003, after many years of hardcore loyalty.

But I’ve frequented the new palace because it offers, among many other things, free wireless internet connection for all us laptop-carrying types. This is in addition to vast numbers of internet-linked Apple computers on display and available for use or abuse by the great unwashed.

It’s either reckless generosity on Apple’s part or shrewd marketing, and I suspect the latter. As Apple’s recent results confirmed, there has been a “halo effect” created by the success of the iPod. This means consumers are starting to view the rest of Apple’s product range as an extension of that funky little music box, rather than vice-versa.

With a growing number of outlets similar to that in Regent Street, Apple has done what no other computer company has even attempted, perhaps with the exception of Sony. It has created an entire world of aspirational, youthful, lifestyle-driven products and services. Judging by the huge numbers of people constantly milling about the Regent Street store, I get the impression that young women in particular – a holy grail for computer marketers – are buying into this new Apple branding in their droves.

And all because Apple decided to refocus on downloading music from the Net. Definitely not rocket science. So why exactly has Apple been given such a huge window of opportunity in which to cement its first mover advantage in the digital music arena?

Where, oh where are the Apples of the PC world?

I suppose the sad reality of technology, even in 2005, is that most technology companies are staffed by people lacking in sufficient creative flair and the sense of showbiz that emanates right from the top of the Apple tree.

Still, one thing that everyone can copy quite easily from Apple’s venture is the power of offering free wireless internet. As a loss leader, it’s a great way of drawing consumers into your world. I’ve noticed some cafés starting to offer this service (unlike Starbucks’ expensive version, in partnership with T-Mobile). But I think this could, and should, become much more widespread this year.

dwek@journalist.co.uk

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