It’s tough enough, getting small packages into the hands of e-commerce shoppers with the efficiency and speed they demand today. But when heavy goods are involved? That’s a whole other challenge.
When it comes to the application of technology to processing and shipping orders, sellers of items like furniture and appliances are lagging those who specialize in smaller products, says Doug Ladden, co-founder and chief executive officer of Deliveright, a specialist in final-mile delivery of heavy goods. Many continue to run their businesses with paper — those dreaded Excel spreadsheets. “There’s a dire need for innovation,” he says.
When merchandisers in that sector do embrace new types of information systems, they don’t always go about it in a methodical and well-thought-out way. “There’s a ton of technology that people are coming out with that’s adding limited benefit,” Ladden believes. “We’re reaching the point of diminishing, marginal utility.”
The problem, he says, lies in a scattershot approach to acquiring IT. Companies might amass multiple point solutions that address particular functions with little regard for how they impact the rest of the organization. And the vast number of options available in the marketplace for optimizing individual tasks can be confusing, if not counterproductive.
“How many more technology offerings do we need to help companies route trucks?” Ladden asks. “How many more to match up the people who ship with those with capacity? A big part of the innovation curve has already occurred in some subcategories.”
Yet opportunities for automating logistics and distribution continue to exist, especially in the specialized category of heavy goods. Valued at some $50 billion, it has received much less attention than the parcel arena for innovation, he says.
One reason is the additional complexities of delivering items that, for the most part, can’t be left on the buyer’s doorstep. Often there’s a fair amount of unpacking involved, as well as the need to enter the home and even assemble the item in question — the “white-glove” service requirement. Finally, there’s the challenge of scheduling delivery at a time that’s convenient for the buyer to receive it.
“People don’t appreciate how different it is from parcel,” Ladden says. “Everything in the heavy-goods world is more complicated.” For one thing, the dominant carriers in the parcel market won’t handle shipments of more than 150 pounds. Their trucks tend to be staffed by one driver, who has neither the time, desire nor physical ability to muscle big and bulky items into homes. Heavy-goods merchandisers are instead forced to rely on a fragmented market of thousands and small and mid-sized delivery companies that lack the information systems to efficiently handle e-commerce orders.
A decade ago, that lack of capability didn’t matter as much as it does today, with the explosion of e-commerce activity triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in the day, a furniture or appliance seller would arrange for home delivery with a local store, providing the buyer with an imprecise window of time for receipt that might span an entire day or more. Shoppers today will no longer tolerate that kind of treatment, no matter how difficult to handle their purchases might be.
What the industry needs on the technology side is a system that covers everything from scheduling and routing of deliveries to organizing entry into the receiver’s building, ensuring that everything is scanned and properly located, arranging for certifications of insurance, sending invoices, dealing with damaged and return goods, and handling returns when necessary. “It’s the complete solution that’s lacking, as opposed to a bunch of separate ones,” Ladden says.
Artificial intelligence might be a long-term solution, but it’s difficult at the moment to apply it to the routing and shipment of heavy goods. “There just isn’t enough information available to “feed the beast,” Ladden says. A promising future application of AI, however, is in determining the reasons behind service failures such as damaged goods. It would be extremely valuable, he says, for the shipper to know whether the culprit was the design of the product, the packaging, the difficulty of assembly or the carrier.
The physical side of heavy-goods management is also overdue for innovation, Ladden says, urging a greater focus on combining less-than-truckload shipments into full truckloads for lower shipping costs. But that, too, will require technology that makes possible the efficient aggregation of shipments and management of multiple relationships.
Ladden says there’s plenty of work still to be done, to address the final-mile delivery of heavy goods. The technology is young, and most delivery companies don’t have the resources to acquire it. “It will require some pioneering efforts,” he says. “In 2023, we’ll see more of that.”
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