Ake’s Take: Why the last mile is such a big deal…

By | November 13, 2018

Why the last mile is such a big deal…

Think about a common, small-ticket item which you hate to purchase. A good example for me are windshield wipers, and, on a recent rainy drive to Pennsylvania, I realized it was time to change my blades.

The usual buying process for the product is as follows:

1. Drive to the auto parts store, which for me is “not on the way” to anything, about a 10-minute trip one-way.
2. Find the wiper blade catalog which is dirty, roughed-up, and missing some pages. The large book is difficult to hold because it is chained to the shelf and there is no place to set it down.
3. Find your car in this book. The book is not easy to read because the type is small, the pages are thin and the store lighting dim.
4. Find the cryptic code for the wiper blade you need. Something like: FGR3T-47 and if you need two sizes: FGR4T-47.
5. Search the stock of wiper blades trying to remember the secret code that you need because you can’t write it down. The blades are not displayed in any particular order, so it’s difficult to find the right one.
6. After searching for a couple minutes, you determine that the blades you need are not stocked in that brand.
7. Repeat Steps 2 through 5. Usually you can find your wipers in the second brand searched, but if not, you need to repeat those steps for brand three.
8. You finally find them and head to the check out. On at least one time in your life, you grab the wrong ones, foolishly confusing FGR3B-47 for the blades you wanted.
9. Wait at the checkout counter as the cashier is on the phone having an in-depth discussion about the transmission on a ’68 Mustang.
10. Pay for your purchase and receive four grease-coated coins as change.
11. Drive home. Estimated time of total trip = 35 minutes.

Who needs that?

A Better Way?

Free goods!

I was running behind on things after returning from my trip and having difficulty finding time to go to the auto parts store. So, one day at lunchtime I Googled “windshield wipers.” The first website up was Walmart.com. Clicked, entered the make, model, and year, and was instantly presented with four brands of wipers at various price points. Selected the second-best brand and went to checkout. But I was $4.59 short of free shipping. What to do? No problem, the website showed me four related products, that would raise my total over the threshold. I selected the Glass Water Repellent for $4.69, entered my payment information, and bada bing, bada boom, the purchase was completed in about five minutes.

I didn’t even look at the delivery information since I didn’t need the blades right away. So, I was startled to see the delivery guy scurrying across my yard (I work from home) with the Wal-Mart box the very next day. Alas, they had not delivered in 24 hours, it was actually 25.
Now today we consider this commonplace, we even expect it, but let’s ponder just what happened here. What would be the reaction, if just several years ago I called the auto parts store and said this?

Here’s my car information. Now go get me prices on every brand you carry. Then I’m going to choose one and have you process my payment over the phone. Then I want you to go pull my blades off the shelf and package them up for me. Yeaaah, I’m going to need you to deliver them to my house tomorrow. Oh, and I’m not paying any delivery charge. If you could do that, that would be greaaaat.

Now spread this hassle-free buying experience over millions of products and you can hear the collapse of the brick-and-mortar, as the last mile explodes. And, of course, this trend is accelerating. Millennials demand ease of purchase in everything, and baby boomers (like myself) are learning we don’t have to put up with the annoyances of yesterday, because there is really a better way. Everyone will eventually want it fast, easy, and free. And the “last mile” will cease to be a common term, it will just be normal, standard practice.

The transportation/logistics network has been adapting to these consumer/cultural changes. The system is better than it was, but not optimal. Eventually, one can imagine a network of automated warehouses, serviced by a fleet of self-driving delivery vehicles. And drones, don’t forget drones. Lots of drones.

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About Don Ake

Don has more than 20 years of experience in the transportation industry, including 16 years with industry supplier Hendrickson International. Don has a very strong forecasting and market analysis background. While at Hendrickson Don developed forecasting models, methods and processes to accurately forecast Truck and Trailer builds and product demand. Don wrote an industry economic newsletter and gained a reputation as a top industry analyst. His industry supplier background provides a "customer perspective" now that he is with FTR.