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Delivering the home shopping network (part 2- more on drones)

Following on from last week’s post on the logistics around what an IoT driven home shopping experience might require, it was interesting to see Amazon’s publicity around Prime Air, their drone strategy, this (shopping) weekend. A super fun and well imagined scenario, which set up 30 minute delivery as meeting an urgent need, rather than a specific tight window (so very much slotting into “on demand” rather than “scheduled” delivery).

This was very much not a sensor based shopping experience, but focused instead on simply the delivery component. One small tweak that will make this more plausible going forward is Amazon (and others, but who?) knowing everything you have bought, so instead of having to specify the brand and size of shoes needed, you will simply re-buy something you have already bought. It’s remarkably hard to execute this in the world today- products are not actually self-selling- so to know exactly what something is, and how to re-buy it, has not a design requirement. Bar or QR codes and NFC tags on or in products might help, but we are a long way from that today. This is especially important in things like soccer boots and guitar strings (another very plausible “I need it right now” situation, and one where exact specifications are important, but not obvious from the product itself), but also awkward when products are sold with micro variations (toothpaste is an easy example- peppermint or spearmint, paste or gel?). As we flagged last week IoT and sensor-based shopping will change how goods are sold, and this simple repurchase is another different example of the same thing.

Is drone delivery another nail in the retail coffin? Likely not, especially for higher end retail. For stores that are in essence mini-warehouses in second tier (cheap) locations it will become harder and harder to compete, but for others drone delivery might be the perfect complement to the “shopping as experience” strategy. If a consumer can select a product and then relax in the high end mall coffee shop for 29 minutes knowing (and perhaps even watching) their product will be delivered, for many that might be better than any home delivery. Certainly a drone strategy which requires flight path approvals at any level at all, and guarantee of a reasonable landing area (dealing with slopes, trees, snow will be complicated), might find it simpler to deliver to a known spot (on the roof of a building, or in a secure, known landing area), rather than assuming the ability to land in any garden.

Will drone delivery be commonplace? Drones do not obviously beat self-driving cars in many situations, especially in scenarios that envision most cars being self driving (and we hope road congestion being much reduced). Autonomous street vehicles have much to prove in how they handling weather, but they will certainly beat drones, except in floods. Where drones do clearly win is in flexibility of last few yard deliveries (just over the garden fence/on the roof etc) and also in the ability to deal with the center of cities, as long as the airways remain open them. So clearly a role for drones, but most likely as part of a broader suite of solutions.