Solving the "last mile" wine delivery problem

The final part of the delivery chain can be the most environmentally damaging. Robert Joseph looks at the situation.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

One of the biggest and least-heralded changes to the way most people now live in the developed world is the shrinking of the time between deciding to buy something and receiving it. Anyone over the age of 30 will remember advertisements routinely saying, “allow 14-28 days for delivery”. Today, the companies behind those kinds of advertisements will be aiming to offer 24-hour service, at the very least. Even products manufactured on the other side of the world can arrive on their buyers’ doorsteps within days.

What one might reasonably call the Amazonization of logistics is quite familiar to at least some members of the wine industry. Anyone whose business supplies restaurants will be very familiar with orders placed at midnight for mixed cases that absolutely must be delivered before the doors open for service the following evening.

This part of the delivery-chain – between the warehouse and the customer – is known as the ‘last mile’ and it is coming under increasing scrutiny by environmentalists. According to some estimates, it can represent as much as 50% of the product’s shipping carbon footprint. When considering the energy involved in transporting bottles of wine from Australia or Argentina to Berlin or Beijing, this may seem to be counterintuitive, but it makes sense. The early stages of the journey are generally efficient, with large amounts of wine being packed into the smallest possible space. The last mile, on the other hand, can involve half-full vans belching out diesel as they struggle through city traffic to deliver a handful of bottles.

Where there’s an environmental problem, however, there’s almost always a number of inventive young businesses eagerly looking for ways to make money out of solving it. And that’s certainly the case for logistics. The most enterprising idea I’ve come across is one launched in Stockholm where rubbish collection and product delivery are now provided by the same vehicle and driver. Setting aside the easy jibe that, in the case of some purchases it might make sense to cut out the middleman by shifting them from one side of the truck to the other, it’s a very elegant solution. Whether wine merchants could combine forces with glass-recycling businesses is another matter.

Other interesting initiatives include vehicles powered by batteries and pedal-power, as well as metre-square ‘cubes’ that seek to replicate the efficiency of the shipping container. On the other hand, delegating deliveries to Uber drivers and motorists offering the service as a part time activity, or designating a private home as a delivery/pick up point, may not be appropriate for alcohol.

But technology may change some of the constraints to which the wine industry has been subject. The arrival of face recognition will enable deliverers to be sure they are handing the bottles over to a person who is legally old enough to receive them, while another concept involves empowering robots to open and place packages in lockers situated outside peoples’ homes.

The wine industry – or parts of it – have made huge efforts to cut costs and carbon footprints by bulk-shipping and local bottling in lightweight glass. Arguably, it will be difficult to streamline these parts of the delivery chain much further. But there is still plenty of fat to be trimmed from the last mile, and businesses that fail to wield that knife will be punished for failing to do so.

Robert Joseph

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