This article was written by Alex Steffen in February 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
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 schlep (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 things you're buying -- it seems to all offer some interesting leverage points to me.
What do you think?
Home Delivery as a Sustainability Lever is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.