Last-mile delivery consists of the set of activities in a supply chain that will bring the service and product to the final customer. The name “last mile” derives from the fact that indeed this usually refers to the final part of the supply chain journey, and yet this is extremely important, as it’s the most exposed, consumer-facing part.
Quick intro to last-mile logistics and why it matters so much
Last-mile logistics, or the so-called “last-mile” comprises the activities that need to be done in order to provide a service to the final customer. The last-mile problem is a very hard one, now on the priority list for many organizations (Amazon, Uber Eats, Instacart, Grubhub and many others).
Each of those companies is trying to solve the last-mile problem in different ways, and industries. And yet, once tackled this can change the whole supply chain for good. That is why last-mile delivery is so important and strategic.
Let’s see what are some of the components that make up the so-called last-mile problem.
Outside the network
In a platform business model, or in an organization managing a vast supply chain, there are advantages of scale. Those advantages of scale usually come from the fact that the whole platform or supply chain network benefits from managing things at scale.
There is an exception to this rule, and that’s the last mile. Indeed, the last-mile falls outside the network, as it is the last leg of the supply chain and the point of connection with the final customer, that last mile is not scalable (at least not in conjunction with the network itself) and it falls in a logic that can’t be comprised in the overall network.
Imagine the simple example, of a set of packages that have gone through an extremely well-organized sorting, and storing center, where, perhaps, packages have been shipped even before the expected time, in the center outside the urban area, and are now ready to be delivered to the final customers.
The delivery person – which is usually in charge of the last mile – has to ship several packages in an urban location, perhaps in the center of an extremely busy city. All can happen in that last mile: delays, traffic jams, accidents, and worse.
Thus, for as much the supply chain has been organized to run at an optimal level. The last-mile will have the potential to disrupt the whole supply chain, as it might cause substantial delays to the final shipment to customers.
One of the key elements of last-mile logistics is also the fact that this is the consumer-facing part of the supply chain. As such, customers might attribute most of their experience to that single touchpoint.
Therefore, if the delivery person will, for any reason, get to the final customer later than expected, or to say, deliver the wrong package, the whole experience would be ruined.
The most expensive part
The last-mile is also the most expensive part of the supply chain. As organizations can’t leverage on economies of scale, the last-mile poses important challenges to the overall supply chain.
Therefore, as highlighted so far, the primary reason last-mile logistics gets counterintuitive as it usually does not benefit from economies of scale. Therefore, the last mile sits outside the network effects created by the organization, as the last step – required to get to the final customer – is disconnected from the rest of the network.
The consequence is that the last-mile is the most expensive (most of the costs of the supply chain lie in that last mile), hard to tackle (it requires a degree of customization that can’t be canceled out), and yet extremely important (consumers see the face of the delivery person as the only “physical connection” with the company).
Let’s see now, how are companies trying to figure out the last-mile problem.
Decentralizing the last-mile
Amazon has been trying to tackle this problem in several ways. With Amazon Flex it tried to crowdsource delivery by tapping into gig workers at local level:
While the concept seemed quite interesting, it also posed substantial pressures on the last-mile flex workers (which only enriched the militia of gig workers born in the platform era).
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Therefore, instead of turning directly to drivers, Amazon is trying to solve the last-mile problem by helping to start delivery businesses that will handle drivers locally. A decentralized approach, which is local enough to make it manageable and yet cheap for Amazon, as those companies would run their own P&L, independently.
This works as a sort of a franchise model, where Amazon helps in the initial set-up and it guarantees business to its franchisee business owners, as long as they meet the quality standards set by Amazon.
Yet those are independent contractors.
Amazon Prime Air
Another solution that will help tackle, part of, the last-mile problem is the use of drones, where for objects with specific characteristics and in certain areas (rural areas perhaps) the drones are already in use as a valid test to tackle the last-mile problem.
Another solution that might help solve, part of, the last-mile problem is the use of autonomous vehicles. Amazon itself has been looking into the possibility of acquiring and expanding more and more into the autonomous vehicle space, which also would help solve part of the problem in the next decade.
- The last-mile is the final step in the supply chain and yet critical as it’s consumer-facing, thus, often, the only physical touchpoint between the consumer and the company. At the same time, this is also extremely expensive, inefficient, and hard to scale.
- The last-mile delivery then poses a last-mile problem that several companies are trying to tackle, as this is the key to unlock online-to-offline experiences and create a consistent end-to-end journey.
- Companies like Amazon have been trying different solutions. For instance, Amazon tried Flex, a formula that enabled anyone to become a delivery person.
- Amazon, however, started to abandon that program in favor of Amazon Service Partners, which attempts to create a whole new ecosystem of independent startups that run their business on top of Amazon’s last-mile supply chain. If this model works, it might, in part, solve the hard problem of last-mile delivery.
- Other potential solutions are the use of drones and autonomous vehicles. While those seem technically viable, they pose substantial regulatory challenges that might make them viable in the coming decade.