January 16, 2008

Home-Based Workers Ask “Will the Iceman Cometh?”

Ruminating, I remind you, means both thinking deeply and chewing cud.That said, I’ve been ruminating on the idea that the 100 million people who say they’d like to work from home, plus the 28 million who already do, may provide the impetus for the return of daily home deliveries. Add skyrocketing fuel costs, pandemics, and possible chemical/biological/nuclear terror and lots of people may stay home in the future. Certainly a lot more than do now, given current trends.


Today we receive only mail and newspapers on a daily basis, bottled water and Charles Chips periodically, pizza (even pot, apparently) on request; but the dry cleaner, the baker, the milkman, and others used to stop at the house daily. Less frequently the ice man cameth, the scissor/knife sharpener would stop by, the coal company would deliver to your home, and you could buy produce and ice-cream from street vendors. For that matter the service station would pick up your car and deliver it back fixed, doctors made house calls and fixed you right there, and drug stores delivered—all at no extra charge. And let’s not brush off the Fuller Man.

I haven’t googled the real reasons why home deliveries stopped, but I’ll go out on a short, low limb and say it was because folks stopped being at home after WW2. Rosie The Riveter started working, and then the two paycheck household meant more people out and about that could stop to do errands, and less people were at home to answer the door. According to one white paper by a UK consulting firm for retailers:

“In the past, as customers we experienced extremely high levels of customer service and home delivery effectiveness. It was based on the fact that as customers, we purchased locally, the local supplier took products into stock and as a business had fantastic local knowledge. This left us with a comprehensive service for all our home delivery needs. But as retail businesses have consolidated and distribution has become national rather than local, distribution hubs and just-in-time fulfillment approaches have been adopted. Furthermore many retail sectors have experienced product price deflation, reducing margins and increased competition. Consequently the ability to provide a comprehensive free of charge delivery service has become extremely difficult.”

“Unfortunately, as customers we like to have options. But once the product has been purchased we seem to have little if any choice of the delivery service we receive. This poor choice has led to a national pass time of ‘war stories’; ‘Who has had the worst or most unreliable experience when it comes to home delivery’. . . .However, now with new technology, retailers have expanded their influence from the high street into the sitting room. They have striven to create 1:2:1 relationships with their customers, continually extending their business, their brand and culture right into our homes through the [Internet]. As customers, we have readily adopted this new buying experience. We enjoy the speed, the option to personally reflect our buying behavior in the virtual store. We now expect the efficiency and flexibility that we get at the point of sale to extend to the total shopping experience.”

All of which is to ask, assuming I’m right, if—literally and figuratively—telework is the road less traveled and people will be home more and spend less time on the road, is someone gonna start making deliveries? FedEx established FedEx Home Delivery in March of 2000, using independent contractors so they’re on it, calling it an exciting opportunity and stating plans to double capacity in the next few years. Besides, modern software allows efficient least-cost routing, so it makes sense for white vans to do it. And brown. Maybe an upstart will go green, who knows.

Three years? Five Years? Ten? My guess is it will happen, but it’s hard to say when. Arthur Clarke in Profiles of the Future cautions that we tend to be too conservative on short term prognostications, and too optimistic on long term ones.

Update: as I was saying . . .

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