The postal strike has cast the spotlight strongly back onto the doorstep and with it the abiding challenge of ecommerce; the ‘Last Mile’, that final hurdle of fulfilment for pure-play and multichannel alike.

No matter the efficiencies of supply chain systems, and all the sophistication around point of purchase and point of sale, it’s the point of delivery that’s still not wrapped up.

Time slots are fallible, and what’s most costly for the supplier is often the most convenient for the customer. As revealed in last week’s magazine (Retail Week, October 23), research
by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows the high importance attributed by internet shoppers to breadth of delivery options.

The market today is as much on the desktop as in the town square. Purchasing online has become a daily shopping trip for millions of consumers. A 24/7 activity with all the comforts of home, it chimes well with the general resurrection of domesticity now that we can less afford to go out (witness the rising sales of everything from sewing machines and knitting wool, to DVDs and take-aways). 

However, until technology advances to the point where products can be transmogrified down the line (“Beam it up, postie”) fulfilment needs handling as it always has: the purchaser collects the goods or the goods come to the purchaser.

Two old-fashioned, un-technological methods of home fulfilment merit serious reassessment: party plans and mobile shops. Numerous me-too’s have been spawned by the Tupperware party, as Ann Summers (some of whose plastic products serve a very different purpose) can ably testify. Many other retailers could now profit from this lucrative home channel; especially given the wealth of unemployed talent in the retail sector at present.

Mobile shops still exist in the UK, especially in rural areas, but nothing like they used to (though ‘Stop me and buy one’ vans still jingle their way along many a suburban street). Even the ubiquitous milkmen – a very British phenomenon – are disappearing (halving over the past 10 years according to some official estimates).

It’s all quite different in France. The village where I have my home welcomes as many marchands ambulants as when I arrived 36 years ago: the epicier, fishmonger, butcher, and greengrocer all visit once a week and two bakers come every day (one socialist, one Gaullist to cater for all convictions), charging only 10 centimes more than the shop price for a baguette.

‘Stand & Deliver’ is as relevant for an aging population here as ‘Click & Collect’ is for younger citizens. And when the pharmacy in St Laurent asks the baker to deliver medicaments to a customer in an outlying village, this is surely what social networking should really be about.

As hypermarkets lose their raison d’être, and the big grocers rush to open proximity stores, one day, perhaps, a branded van will travel that last mile and fulfil customers’ needs on their own doorsteps – not just with deliveries but with an on-board, private-label shop.

  • Michael Poynor chief retail adviser to PricewaterhouseCoopers