End point

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on February 25, 2018

Indian e-commerce has a last-mile problem

The growth of Indian e-commerce has been remarkable. Millions of packages are ordered and delivered without glitches every day, a feat never thought achievable even 10 years ago.

The system works perfectly as long as someone is available to receive a package. In case this fails, e-commerce companies have introduced creative back-up solutions. Customers could designate pick-up points from where they could receive packages after validating identity. This would generally not work for heavier items or those which need assembly, but at least, the option exists.

But the last mile problem — of getting the ordered product safely to the intended recipient — is still an issue for a whole cohort of customers. The most common scenario happens when customers order a product to be delivered to someone else in a single family home with no security guard to receive it. Ordering for someone else is an administrative headache. Messages about expected shipping dates are constantly sent to the person who ordered the product. The person has to unfailingly communicate these to the recipient, adding layers of duplication.

A mantra in the e-commerce world is to deliver items as soon as possible, even beating the company’s original estimated delivery date. But this over-achievement can create havoc at single family home addresses. An aged relative may be out at the bank secure in the knowledge that the package is not due for a few days yet.

Even when recipients are home, couriers know too well that at residential villas, security is a huge concern. Physical, metal barriers are everywhere as one enters a residential property. An unsuspecting courier does not know how to navigate an outside locked gate because a key is placed in a secret compartment. He shouts his arrival out aloud but alas, those inside can’t hear him.

Couriers also arrive during sacred afternoon siesta times. Senior citizens have learned to ignore called bells during these hours assuming that intruders are salespeople. The courier leaves disappointed, noting incorrectly that the customer was not available. Two unsuccessful delivery attempts mean that the package is returned to the sender. Resurrecting life to an order which has been returned is a nightmare.

All these last mile delivery problems are not because of deficiencies in physical logistics. They are because e-commerce systems are not designed to effectively communicate with the intended recipient of an order, an issue which should be addressed much earlier in the buying cycle.

The problem starts at the order confirmation page which wrongly assumes that the ordering person is the same as the recipient. A simple fix would be to ask customers to enter contact information of the intended receiver (phone numbers, email) so that it becomes part of the order record — and all communication is sent to both ordering customer and intended recipient.

A better solution is to request information about a second receiver contact as part of the order record — such as a trusted neighbour. Indian households routinely borrow a cupful of sugar from their neighbours, so designating them to receive a package is the most natural thing to do.

On delivery day, even if it is earlier than estimated, the courier negotiates the precise availability of the recipient (or the secondary contact) — not the person who ordered — before proceeding to deliver. Problem solved. So Amazon, Flipkart or Snapdeal - who will lead the way?

The writer is MD, Rao Advisors LLC

Published on February 25, 2018

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