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05 Apr 2021

Evolution of the Delivery Service and its Post-COVID Future

Delivery services per se are nothing new. Logistics providers have been serving brand owners for many years, ensuring that buyers’ purchases are swiftly delivered into their hands and supporting the customer experience.

The global ecommerce boom accelerated delivery-service growth. It spawned new service models from existing providers and a wave of startups offering dedicated logistics solutions for retailers and their customers.

Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, upending established retail and commerce practices by obligating people to observe social distancing and other disciplines to prevent viral transmission.

Against the continuing pandemic's backdrop, the importance of delivery services has risen to new heights in the public consciousness. Providers are innovating to respond to changing needs and expectations, remodeling the last mile logistics landscape at an incredible pace, and setting new trends for a post-COVID future.

What will that future look like for delivery-service providers and their customers? That's the outlook that we'll focus on toward the end of this article, after breaking down the delivery service's evolution, its trends in digitization, and adaptations to slow the spread of Coronavirus.

Delivery Services Before Ecommerce

Ever since US stagecoach companies began competing with the postal service back in the 1800s, delivery services have provided a vital link between enterprises that sell goods, and the customers who buy them.

However, from those customers' perspectives, delivery needs were limited to large and bulky items that they could not easily carry from the retailer's stores. Then there was a subset of shoppers who used mail order, a relatively onerous way to shop compared to today's digital incarnation of virtual shopping. It was certainly not as convenient as hitting the high street to fill a couple of carrier bags and bring them home.

Things began to change in earnest in the early years of this century, as trust in the Internet grew, and businesses began offering their merchandise through online sales outlets.

Delivery Services: The Face-to-Face Ecommerce Touchpoint

Within a few years of the Internet’s mainstream emergence, shopping, and even buying for business via digital channels had become an everyday activity.

As the world began to embrace home-shopping convenience, ecommerce’s growth became inexorable, generating demand for logistics solutions that fit the profile of etailers and their customers.

Ecommerce logistics can be complicated, especially for businesses pursuing an omnichannel strategy, combining ecommerce with brick-and-mortar retail. That fact, combined with the ease with which smaller retail businesses can begin trading online, created a gap in the logistics market for providers to specialize in last mile delivery. These specialists also address another issue arising from ecommerce growth—customer expectations.

For online shopping to match the immediacy of traditional in-store retail, ecommerce merchants must provide fast delivery. In many markets, customers expect delivery on the day of purchase.

To meet these challenges, delivery providers began to exploit digital technology advancements. Some new logistics companies have even based their entire business models on digital tools to enable speed, responsiveness, and seamless integration with the online sales environment.

Along Came COVID

By the time the world became aware of the potential calamity arising from the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, delivery services were already proliferating in support of the ecommerce boom.

Suddenly though, as the pandemic spread globally, and one-by-one, countries implemented measures to slow transmission, everything changed.

From a prized alternative to conventional retail, ecommerce turned overnight into a critical solution for people to get products they want and need. That was primarily due to the absence of person-to-person contact required in online purchasing activity. Consequently, the delivery service, too, became the one critical lifeline on which businesses and consumers could depend.

The Trigger for Transformation

As ecommerce exploded anew in response to the pandemic, many delivery companies found themselves battling to keep up with the unprecedented influx of orders. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, they also came under pressure to change delivery practices in the name of safety and health.

That was the most telling catalyst for change that the last-mile logistics industry has had to go through in recent years, and its effects have been far-reaching and profound. Providers went into overdrive to provide services that protect staff and customers' health without losing the benefits of speed, responsiveness, and convenience.

Adapting to the Delivery Challenges of a Pandemic

There had never been a requirement to test the dynamics of ecommerce delivery during a crisis before 2020, so initially, service providers were rushing to adapt quickly. As a result, the adoption of temporary measures was hasty and widespread. Here it was the digitally-driven startups that had the most significant advantage.

Companies like Shipa Delivery were already adept in the use of new and still-evolving technologies. They exploited their expertise to develop solutions to reduce face-to-face contact during the delivery process, especially at the customer-end.

Of course, technology can’t solve all the issues arising from public health concerns. Logistics providers must also pay attention to the physical steps involved in last-mile delivery. Furthermore, new measures and adaptations were not limited to solving health and safety concerns. Delivery companies also had to act fast to accommodate a surge of the online order volumes that etailers faced.

The Digital Sales Tsunami

It wasn't so much the increased numbers of online sales that strained delivery-service providers but the lack of forewarning that preceded it.

Logistics companies are adept at dealing with volume peaks. Still, they usually know when those order rushes will occur, as most volume increases are associated with seasonal events that occur annually, at known times of the year.

The pandemic was not on anybody's schedule. It took conventional and online retailers, along with their supply chain partners, by surprise.

The Imperative to Digitize and Optimize

Logistics enterprises' responses often hinged on their technological maturity. Some companies with minimal solutions bolstered them with dynamic route optimization software to increase the number of deliveries their fleets could accommodate.

Others sought to increase delivery accuracy and productivity by implementing barcode scanning and other digital track-and-trace aids.

In the case of companies that already had automation and digital solutions in abundance, there was little more they could do. Most resorted to frantically increasing staffing levels and procuring extra vehicles to manage the surge in deliveries.

Regardless of technological prowess, all last-mile delivery providers felt obliged to optimize processes as much as was practical. It was an essential step to match the mushrooming volume while maintaining their service promises.

Not all succeeded. Even retail and logistics giant Amazon was forced into triage mode, prioritizing critical goods and suspending non-essential deliveries in some geographies.

Meeting Unparalleled Health and Safety Obligations

For logistics companies engaged in final-mile services, the COVID-19 crisis became something of an irony. In “normal” times, delivery personnel’s interaction with their clients’ end customers would be considered brief but essential. Management teams expended much effort and energy trying to focus drivers on their role as ambassadors for the client.

Once the social-distancing policies began emanating from governments, the focus shifted to seeking ways to reduce face-to-face interaction between drivers and customers. Indeed, this requirement led to perhaps the most transformative innovations in the realms of delivery service.

The adaptations made in this area can have taken two general forms: physical practices and technological improvements.

Changes in Physical Processes

Like all societal and business sectors, delivery-service providers found it necessary to introduce practices supporting social distancing and other Coronavirus-related safety measures.

The following overview lists some of the physical adaptations that these companies have implemented, working backward from the point of delivery:

  • Companies engaged in delivering large or heavy items curtailed the practice of taking goods inside customers’ premises. Instead, they would drop deliveries only on the doorstep or pavement outside the premises.
  • Instead of handing a package directly to the customer at the delivery point, the driver would place it on the ground, move away from the doorstep, and notify the recipient that delivery is complete.

In cases where manual (paper) proof of delivery was still part of the process, some companies insisted that the driver, instead of the customer, sign the document. That avoids the need for drivers and customers to step inside a two-meter radius of one another and pass paperwork from hand to hand. Some companies, such as FedEx, have decided not to ask customers for a signed proof of delivery at all.

  • In many countries, wearing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly face masks, became mandatory. Even where this is not the case, most delivery companies insist that their staff wear masks for customer safety and confidence.

  • Before packages are delivered, and even before they leave the delivery providers’ warehouses, they are often treated with disinfectant to eliminate the risk of any viral contamination. Shipa Delivery, for example, protects all its client’s parcels by sealing them into its branded plastic packaging. The slick surface makes them easy to wipe down before dispatch and again before the driver drops them off to the recipients.

  • Delivery vehicles and any equipment used for transportation are typically disinfected at the beginning and end of each shift to lessen Coronavirus transmission risk.

Management Changes and Technology Advances

Several of the changes in practice described above have not gone down well with delivery recipients. For instance, in countries with higher crime rates, there is an increased fear of package theft from drives and porches. With no signed proof of delivery, the risk of disputes between sellers and their customers is also a concern.

For reasons like these, forward-thinking service providers have increased diligence over delivery management and turned to technological solutions for efficiency and improved security across package delivery and payment processes.

Some have recognized the need to screen their customers, to identify, for example, anyone in an “at-risk” category or self-isolating and requiring extra precautions during delivery. Many took steps to improve the accuracy of estimated delivery times and increase electronic notifications to advise recipients of their deliveries’ status.

Digitizing the Point of Delivery

Digital technology has been at the center of a revolution at the point of delivery. Many delivery providers were already using electronic point-of-delivery (EPOD) software on mobile devices when the pandemic took hold. The Coronavirus crisis was a catalyst for functionality expansion in EPOD systems to support what soon became known as contactless delivery.

Shipa Delivery and other digital-first logistics providers moved fast to adapt their EPOD solutions to combat viral transmission risk. They added functionality to minimize or eliminate person-to-person contact between delivery staff and customers.

Electronic measures facilitating contactless delivery include:

  • SMS notifications of delivery progress and live package tracking on an app.
  • Electronic proof of delivery using a web link sent to a delivery recipient’s mobile device. The recipient can click on the link and confirm that delivery is received. Proof of delivery via a unique code sent to a recipient’s mobile device. The recipient can relay the code to the delivery driver by SMS. The driver then enters the code into the provider’s delivery application on a mobile POD terminal or cellphone.
  • Photographic delivery confirmation (the delivery driver photographs the delivered package on the recipient’s drive or porch.

All of the above solutions enable providers to execute deliveries without the customers ever needing to step outside their homes or offices. They can simply pick up the dropped packages after the delivery vehicle departs, minimizing the risk of viral transmission at the point of delivery.

Anti-COVID Measures Shaping the Future of Ecommerce Logistics

Along with the process changes and digitization initiatives already mentioned, other changes are afoot in the delivery-service sector.

Many of these transformative solutions were trending before the pandemic struck but have dramatically accelerated since COVID-19 began to rock the retail and logistics industries.

The pandemic has driven faster development of automated delivery solutions, including autonomous delivery robots and drones. It has hastened public delivery locker installation in urban locations and even ushered in contactless methods for users to unlock them and retrieve their parcels.

Contactless proof of delivery and payment have also progressed rapidly and have already become the norm in last-mile services.

While COVID-19 might have been an enormous stimulus for change in delivery-service management and execution, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a return to the ways of the past. The pandemic has driven transformations that enable providers to be more responsive, efficient and offer greater control to their customers.

The Symbiosis of Ecommerce and Delivery Services

It’s not only the nature of delivery solutions that have come a long way in the shadow of the pandemic. The industry’s growth, too, has advanced. The fortunes of the last-mile logistics vertical are tied closely to those of ecommerce—which, of course, has become pervasive in just about every category of retail and B2B sales. Indeed, without delivery services, ecommerce would not exist.

By forcing people to practice social distancing and stay home, Coronavirus has had the effect of converting even the most reticent technophiles to the digitized world of online retail.

By the time the crisis is over, the consumer population's affinity with ecommerce may well diminish the desire to go out and physically shop for anything. Brick-and-mortar retail is at risk of becoming a novelty fallback for days when a change of scenery and a little exercise seems an excellent reason to visit the high street or mall. Consequently, continued growth in ecommerce—and the delivery services that support it—seems assured.

There’s No Immunity to Ecommerce and Delivery

Ecommerce, and by association, delivery services, have penetrated new sectors of retail. The doors are open for delivery-service providers to enter new B2B and B2C niches, such as prepared-food delivery. For example, in the restaurant and grocery delivery sectors, 2020 saw an intense wave of startup activity and consolidation among online-delivery providers.

With so many options available for on-demand delivery of products that consumers once had to fetch themselves, it's inconceivable that sector-specific delivery services will disappear when the pandemic abates.

Delivery Services – The New Normal for Post-Covid Retail

History has shown us that in times of turmoil, such as military conflict (and in this case, a medical conflict), innovation ramps up spectacularly. It drives significant technological advances, and the world is never quite the same in the aftermath.

That tendency for transformation bodes well for the delivery-service industry, which has now entered a global society's consciousness as a lifeline rather than merely a convenience.

COVID-19 will eventually blow over. However long it takes to do so, the ease with which customers can have products brought to them on-demand changes everything for the future. The horizon is shifting to one on which delivery becomes the default instead of an alternative option.

While many business and industry verticals have suffered sorely in the pandemic's grip, the delivery-service sector is one of the few to buck the trend and enjoy global proliferation. That’s a silver lining—for logistics at least—against the dark cloud that Coronavirus cast on an unprepared world.