There’s been a revolution on the streets of Milton Keynes. In October 2018, Starship Technologies launched the UK’s first robotic parcel delivery service in the town.
The robots, which travel on the pavement, and cross roads, just like pedestrians, are equipped with cameras, ultrasound sensors, radar and GPS, and are controlled by software which has been trained to recognise people, cars and traffic lights, in order to ensure they can travel safely. At the moment, this technology is expensive, and is not likely to be widely adopted to replace human couriers for some time, at least until the cost of the robots falls below the costs of employing, equipping and training a human workforce. However, the benefits go beyond any potential cost reduction. One of the key features of robot delivery is that it puts the control firmly into the hands of the end customer. The package is initially delivered to a local depot, which triggers an alert to the customer, who can then choose when to have the robot bring the package to their home. The customer then gets a text with a unique code that enables them to unlock the robot when it arrives.
Robots could be perceived to be cold and impersonal, but the company, which has now launched robot grocery, restaurant food and parcel delivery schemes in cities across the globe, is using marketing geared towards giving them personality and endearing them to customers. There are tweets showing pictures of the robots doing cute things, and even a hashtag, #StarshipFanmail, to which customers send in letters and thank you cards.
The Milton Keynes initiative, together with other deployments around the world, means that there is currently a lot of hype around autonomous vehicles and robots. But the reality is that they are still ten years away from being widely adopted, and even then they will continue to work alongside human couriers. So in the meantime, what can today’s last mile carriers learn from the dawn of the robots?
The more control and visibility we can give the customer over their delivery, the better: As well as the excitement of having a robot come to the door, the service provides customers with some very real benefits. The service comes with the promise of never missing a delivery again, and puts the control for receiving the parcel firmly in the hands of the customer. Although courier companies today can’t promise the same level of excitement, they can do a lot to keep customers informed throughout the delivery, and give them options about when and where to receive their packages, to minimise failed deliveries.
The courier is the face of your brand – and the brand matters for end customers: Again, couriers probably can’t compete with the ‘cuteness’ of the robots. But they can do things that robots can’t - they can offer a smile and a friendly word to customers when they open their doors to them and, over time, can even build up relationships with frequent customers. Couriers are brand ambassadors, and training in soft skills is important, especially as retail customers are becoming more discerning about delivery. Recent research shows that 86 per cent of consumers consider delivery as part of the online shopping experience, and 54 per cent say that it is important they’re able to choose which carrier delivers their online purchases.
It is critically important to keep costs down and efficiency up: This is a challenging time for couriers as whilst growth in parcel delivery accelerated in 2017-18, compared to 2016-17, reaching a total of 2.4 billion items and revenues of £9.4 billion, average unit revenues decreased by five per cent year-on-year, meaning that margins are being squeezed. In this climate, ensuring the couriers have the right delivery information, optimising routes, and having better communications will all help to reduce inefficiencies and improve productivity.
In order to take these challenges on board, courier companies are creating digital transformation strategies that will enable them to have full visibility of their couriers whilst in the field, to equip them with fast, responsive mobile solutions designed to maximise productivity and compliance at every stage of delivery and return, and to have the right data for operations teams to monitor and manage delivery performance. As we move towards the automated, driverless future, the companies that will thrive will be those that know how to exploit data to streamline their service and introduce innovations to meet customer demand.