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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Can e-commerce deliver the goods with new tech?

Amazon and others hope to win customers’ trust with innovative plans

Amazon Locker is one system that the multinational e-giant has employed, but now it is going further, experimenting with technology that would allow delivery staff access to customers’ homes or cars. Getty
Amazon Locker is one system that the multinational e-giant has employed, but now it is going further, experimenting with technology that would allow delivery staff access to customers’ homes or cars. Getty

As our enthusiasm for e-commerce grows and an ever larger number of packages are sent whizzing around the globe, delivering those packages safely into our hands is becoming a growing problem. Online shopping goes hand in hand with missed deliveries; a 2014 study put the number of online shoppers who have had problems getting hold of their purchases at 60 per cent. The practice of some delivery firms to pay couriers per parcel (rather than per day) has led to an increase in those very modern irritants: ever-shifting delivery windows, cards telling us that we must journey several kilometres to a depot and packages being left in bins or delivered to neighbours that don’t exist. These kind of experiences make consumers furious, and blame tends to be deflected in an unsatisfying fashion between vendor and courier.

In recent days, rumours have surfaced that online retailer Amazon has been experimenting with technology that could give couriers one-off access to our car or even our home to deliver goods safely and without fuss. The reaction to this news has been less than universally positive, but demands on delivery networks have become so intense, and complaints over missed deliveries so numerous, that an opportunity has certainly arisen for an inventive new approach.

It would be unfair to say that nothing has been done to address customers’ concerns over the years. There was a time when companies would only ship to the address registered to our credit card, but the relaxation of that rule has allowed us to receive goods at work. Amazon has introduced its “Lockers” to certain countries – secure units positioned around town that offer a safe place to pick up goods – and also a “photo on delivery” service, which provides photographic proof that packages have been delivered safely. Other firms have manufactured remotely operable “smart mailboxes” that can be installed outside our homes to accept deliveries – but could our cars serve precisely the same purpose?

Phrame is the firm rumoured to be working with Amazon on this solution. Its product consists of a smart license plate, remotely unlockable and re-lockable, behind which can be found the keys to the vehicle. By giving you the ability to grant and revoke access to a third party, the delivery problem is solved – at least in theory.

“Phrame turns your car [boot] into your own personal mobile locker,” says the blurb, going on to claim – rather debatably – that this is “the best thing to happen to your car since the wheel”. But the idea of cars as lockers isn’t new; it has been tested by various companies over the years, and the fact that trials have ceased rather than extended might point to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the public.

At Mobile World Congress in 2014, Volvo, in partnership with Ericsson, demonstrated a “Roam Delivery” concept that offered one-off access for couriers and the ability to lock remotely; Amazon and Audi then teamed up with DHL in 2015 for a series of trials in the Munich area, but nothing more was heard about either scheme. Volvo claimed that 92 per cent of participants appreciated the convenience of the system they had devised, but nothing was mentioned about the far bigger issue of trust.

It is not inconceivable that the public might be prepared to place trust in a uniformed employee of a big delivery network, but the pressure on companies to get us our goods in a timely fashion has resulted in deliveries being undertaken in some countries by self-employed drivers from the likes of Uber and Lyft. The so-called “gig economy” might offer great efficiency, but we may not want to give our car keys to strangers whose credentials may not be easily checked and verified.

The prospect of letting couriers into our homes is an even thornier issue. Last summer, Amazon worked with a smart-lock company called August, investigating ways for couriers to leave packages in homes in Seattle, while Walmart teamed up with the same firm last month for trials in the Silicon Valley area of California. “This test will also include online grocery orders,” the website TechCrunch reported, “which won’t just be placed inside the house ... but will be put away in the fridge and freezer, when appropriate.”

Because it already involves a mental leap to remotely grant a stranger access to our home, giving them permission to unpack our groceries and put them away will inevitably make people feel uneasy. “I don’t trust anyone’s screening process enough to give that person the keys to my house,” one online commenter posted.

Innovations frequently force us to consider the offset between convenience and privacy, and this provides a vivid example. Given the choice between allowing a courier into our living room and having a delivery left in an insecure place, most of us would take the chances with the parcel. Phrame positions itself almost as a lifestyle product (“Our goal is to give you more freedom to do what you love”), but despite the safeguards that these products put in place, there may still be nagging doubts on the part of the end user.

It doesn’t help that smart locks have occasionally shown themselves to be flawed. They’re incredibly clever pieces of technology, and very appealing to early adopters who adore the concept of the connected home, but the humble metal key is brilliantly simple and difficult to improve upon; keys will never be rendered inoperable by an online software update and have no vulnerability to hacking. However keen we might be on speedy, convenient deliveries, it would seem to make sense not to have our car doors and front doors connected to the internet. But with each failed delivery costing the industry an estimated US$15 (Dh55), big online vendors seem quietly keen on persuading us that it is a good idea. How long might it take them to succeed?

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