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Home Delivery as a Sustainability Lever
Alex Steffen, 1 Feb 08

Most North Americans think of shopping and driving as fundamentally paired activities. After five decades of mall culture and ever-increasing big-box domination, we're grown totally accustomed to the idea that shopping works like this:

1. You get in your car.

2. You drive to a big building full of stuff.

3. You buy things and put them in your car.

4. You repeat steps 2 and 3 until your car is full or you have everything you want.

5. You drive home and unload your new stuff.

6. You complain about the lack of closet space in your home.

But what if this archetypal 20th century shopping experience is about to become a thing of the past?

I'm really intrigued by NAU's new retail model, where you go in, try clothes on, check out their look and feel, and then order them for delivery to your home (you can buy them and carry them home yourself, but you pay a premium). The main advantage for you is that you don't have to schlepp (meaning you don't need to be driving to shop there); the main advantages for NAU are that they can carry more items in a smaller space (because they don't need to stock multiples of every item in each color and size) and distributing clothes through a central warehouse is more efficient. The storefront, in effect, becomes a "webfront" -- a physical trial space for online shopping.

There are a whole slew of new companies that will deliver organic food to your door, based on your online orders. There are even some CSAs that will skip the annoying step of making you come to a central location and just drop the groceries at your door. I've been told that some farmer's markets are offering free same-day delivery for the food you buy. All of these services hint at being able to be in direct relationship with your food, perhaps even your local farmer, without having to drive to do it.

(One great idea to make all this easier is the shop & drop -- "a password-protected area built into a house or garden, much like the coal-bunkers of yore, where groceries or any products bought online can be left securely, meaning you don't have to be in when they arrive.")

Is it greener to shop on foot or online and then have the stuff delivered? Well, surprisingly (at least to me) the answer is generally yes. Sometimes it's much greener.

The ecological cost of driving a number of online purchases in one truck (a truck, I might note, that is increasingly likely to itself be more efficient than some US cars) on a pre-set route (programmed to also be highly-efficient) is a small fraction of the ecological cost of driving to and from the store to get them yourself. Even when shopping in person, if not having to drag your loot home means you can get to the shop without driving, delivery is still more efficient, I'm told.

And, of course, more and more people are putting a premium on the experience of community shopping. Think about the exploding number of farmer's markets. Think about the newly resurgent neighborhood main streets in upscale compact neighborhoods. People like walking around in their neighborhoods and buying things from people with whom they have a connection.

In addition, just as product-service systems can mitigate the need (or perceived need) to own various bulky tools, appliances, even cars, home delivery might allow for a more just-in-time model of home provisioning. After all, those 900-roll plastic-wrapped palettes of toilet paper from Costco take up a ton of space -- and the 898 rolls we're not using offer us few benefits while they clutter our closets. If we could outsource the storage of extra TP to a home delivery service, living in a smaller space would be that much easier.

Home delivery feels to me like an important piece of the bright green urban experience. Compact communities, good communications technologies and high-value experiences supporting more efficient systems, more potential connection to the backstories of the thing's you're buying -- it seems to all offer some interesting leverage points to me.

What do you think?

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For the clothes, I can't really understand how it's more efficient. I'm sure you save some amount of pollution/energy by not driving there, but a big gas-guzzling, non-efficient delivery truck would be driving to your house instead. Thereby probably negating anything you would have saved by not driving to the store yourself. And they would still have to carry everything in the store in order for you to try it on and make sure you like it and it fits and looks good. It doesn't seem like a solution to me at all, it seems like greenwashing.

Posted by: Terra on 1 Feb 08

I definitely like the idea of being able to just try things on at a walkable location, and then being able to order online. But living in the Midwest, there aren't a ton of models in this way, especially when looking for sales, which aren't available in the same way online. I think also of interest is the idea of sharable tools. Maybe the idea of equipment rental could be transported to an online a netflix or carshare plan for power equipment. From common needs like a drill, to maybe something larger and more complex like a tiller machine. There has been a lot of talk of community sharing models, but for not so-tight communities, the internet could be what people need to make it happen. Or we could just work harder on strengthening communities. Either way.

Posted by: matt on 1 Feb 08

I live in Tokyo,Japan, and you can have anything delivered here! It works just fine...I order my groceries from a flier.. Each week they leave my groceries and pick up next week's order. When you travel, they will pick up your suitcase and get it to your destination in Japan or to the airport in 1or 2 days (you just send it in advance). If you don't want to wait for delivery, the store will wrap it up and add a nice handle so you can carry it home on the train! Generally,the Japanese find it cheaper than driving around themselves.

Posted by: lois on 2 Feb 08

I agree at some points, but I think that people take the car because they take the car, not because they need the car because they can't carry all the stuff they buy. Or is this just a spoiled European way of thinking (I'm Dutch)?

Posted by: Ewout on 2 Feb 08

I don't mind JIT fun gadgets, but JIT food? Before a flu pandemic (or whatever the trigger is) when supplies of essential stuff *will* be disrupted? I think we want the opposite!

Unless, of course, what you envision includes growing food closer to home. That way, if the home delivery team is ill, I can still use bikes or, yes, a car, to go to the nearby farm to fetch food for self and neighbors. (It's harder to go to the other end of the world.)

Systems and designs have to work in bad times, not only in good times.

Posted by: lugon on 2 Feb 08

I'm in an interesting position . . . or location. There is an excellent shopping center across the street, with everything required for everyday living available.

I see a fair number of people in the local New Urbanism neighborhood (across the street in the other direction) walking home with bags from the place. The walkers are almost certainly a minority, but if gas prices keep going up, that could change.

The largest Costco in the world is walking distance (if by walking distance you mean 2 miles . . . but that's cake for me). If I had a cart I could shop there car free!

But to address the larger issue: I think there'd be some resistance to home delivery because of the social aspects of shopping. Humans like going to the market. It's a tradition as old as cities. Mall crawling and bargain hunting might be an warped form of hunting and gathering.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 2 Feb 08

One 'gas-guzzling' delivery truck doing the rounds isn't doing as much toing and froing as individual vehicles. It can also be better targetted for improved emission controls (not that it usually works that way)

I can see this idea working where there is good quality control, and items are reproducible. It might be a question of habit, but there are some things I still prefer to shop for and select myself (especially perishable foodstuffs). Australia still has a healthy set of independent greengrocers and butchers. They work because their quality of goods is far superior to what the supermarkets provide. And I find it a nice way of shopping.

That said, Coles supermarkets has run a delivery service for years.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 3 Feb 08

The delivery would almost certainly be via one of the established courier companies ... which, again, almost certainly are already trundling by your home (wherever you happen to be).

Good point about the quality control. I inspect every seam and stitch (I can't afford not to!).

However, as mentioned, people take the car because they want to. In fact, people will use any/every freakin' excuse they can possibly think of in order to justify driving the car! It's all about the 'control' mentality. The more insecure people are, the more need they have to establish a sense of power externally: if a car is powerful, and they can control the car ... then, they must be even more powerful! Get it? Same with the recent explosion of 'power tools' as a consumer 'good': even when the power tools are entirely unnecessary, people still want (deep down, feel a need for) the power tools since it gives them the satisfaction of being in control, and thus, of being more powerful ... making up for their insecurities.

Posted by: David on 3 Feb 08

Don't forget the suburb tie-in. If they don't require commutes for shopping, that is one less (rational) reason to oppose them.

Posted by: odograph on 3 Feb 08

Cool idea. I'm game. I only have one bone to pick, and that's with the "archetypical" view of shopping that you used as the intro into your narrative. While mindless consumption (and the car we use to pursue that consumption) has a huge negative environmental impact, let's not get too high on our horses here. Here's another version of consumption:
1. You dream for years about playing the guitar
2. You finally save enough to buy a guitar
3. You drive to the store and buy your dream guitar
4. You learn how to play and make beautiful music
My point is that yes, commodities and the means by which we purchase them is destructive, but let's not forget that we live our lives through stuff. Your dad's old shirt, a card from someone you love, a camera through which you make sense of the world- to reduce all of this to a) environmental degradation or b) not environmental degradation is to flatten a complex world into good and evil.
I think the article is great, but to stereotype shopping as this zombie-like gluttonous experience just serves to alienate folks. You could highlight this service effectively without this narrative hook.

Posted by: jennb on 4 Feb 08

organic boxs are delivered to your door here in the uK and its fantastic ! Its great not having to go to the shops to stock up and they don't charge for delivery either.

Posted by: m on 5 Feb 08

I've had a small chance to compare, and Dutch shopping is not also without its own inefficiencies. While it's definitely true that in Amsterdam most people walk or bike instead of driving (like here in Ohio), I've seen shops on Thursday nights in cold weather with their doors hanging wide open, heat pouring out into the street. Definitely not something you would see here any time of year. I've also noticed MANY houses and businesses there that still have single-pane windows. Also something that has become very uncommon here, even in older homes. The Dutch people I know also tend to take overseas vacations that involve long plane flights, which is very uncommon here. I guess my point is that we all have our forms of conspicuous consumption. Here, people drive too much - in Amsterdam, people waste energy in other ways. Regardless, throughout the developed world there is quite a lot of room for improvement.

I agree that delivery is likely, for most people, more efficient than driving because the delivery trucks likely already pass by their house, or fairly close to it, every day anyway. One flaw with the plan though - you still had to visit the store and try the stuff on, or otherwise pick it out. How did you get there? How did you get back? Assuming the store was at the mall, you likely drove... In that case it would be more efficient to buy it and take it home immediately rather than having it shipped later. Really, to make such things feasible it has to become common to actually do the picking in a whole new way, at a whole new place. Say, nice walkable streets lined with small shops. Like Amsterdam (but with closed doors and efficient windows).

Posted by: Eric on 5 Feb 08

I could see how people (including myself) could go for this because of laziness. But I do not necessarily think this should be promoted. Despite all it's negatives, the mall is still a place where a community gathers, and are "together." If we buy digitally, we are separating ourselves even further, it's a new form of "digital divide." I would think that the difference in eco-footprint between people driving, and trucks driving to be pretty marginal, and not significant enough to convince me. For us city dwellers, it's easy not to have a car and get by with our shopping. But how do we access the suburban public? Perhaps ideas like Goloco and community tool sheds are more the answer.

Posted by: Sami on 6 Feb 08

Seems to me that 'delivery' is just another way to say "mail order" which people have been doing for years. Its a great way to get the things you need without ever needing to visit a store (an experience that does nothing for me). And there are definitely ecological benefits to having one truck deliver to multiple homes rather than multiples cars all going to the same store. (It's the school bus model of efficiency - school busses are big and burn lots of diesel, but they carry 50+ kids to school at time. Imagine how much gas is burned with 50 SUVs coming an going to that school.)
The hard part is breaking people of the habit of associating some kind of loss of "power" or "freedom" if they don't take their cars to the store. We get groceries delivered by truck. The time and effort we save gives us freedom - the freedom of time. (and saves gas too.)

Posted by: M. Salerno on 11 Feb 08



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