The front door becomes the front line

David Jinks MILT, Head of Consumer Research at ParcelHero, looks at how home deliveries adapted to the huge growth in demand as the coronavirus epidemic took hold, and how they are keeping Britain fed and provisioned.

As non-essential shops were forced to shut down and the High Street fell silent, home delivery operators had to respond fast to the escalating coronavirus outbreak. After a rather shaky start, particularly for some grocery retailers, many stores began to rapidly upscale their home delivery capabilities to keep us all fed, clothed and entertained.

We were pleased that the Government quickly recognised the vital role delivery drivers play in keeping the nation’s wheels turning, when it included essential delivery drivers in its list of key workers whose children continued to be looked after by schools. Even so, there was a feeling some home delivery sectors were being stretched very thin at first. But gradually delivery slots became far more acceptable as new routines and supply chains were established.

The first problem to be overcome was the issue of safety; for both customers and drivers. A number of retailers announced early on that they would continue to deliver to households in quarantine, a laudable decision, but clearly new protocols were needed to ensure drivers’ safety. It’s true that different companies all adopted slightly different approaches to doorstep delivery, for a few days parcels were even being dropped by some companies without any record kept of proof of delivery, but new protocols were swiftly put in place and there are now broadly agreed procedures. Today drivers keep a 2m distance and will confirm proof of delivery themselves once the package has been accepted: they may even take a photo of premises as proof. To avoid contact entirely, we’ve been advising receivers it’s best practice to let all delivery services know a convenient area such as a porch where parcels can be left safely. I’ve even placed a box outside my own front door for larger items, so they don’t have to be left on the ground!

The way home deliveries have been organised has changed rapidly. Smaller retailers such as marketplace traders will have noticed a rapid decline in the number of drop off and pick up points available from most couriers and mail services as companies seek to reduce physical contact with consumers. But home pick-ups and deliveries have increased to fill the gap, particularly to enable returns: though some retailers have relaxed their returns terms to relieve the strain on delivery chains.

While some industries, such as hospitality, have seen massive redundancies and furloughing, delivery companies are crying out for staff. Once chain recently announced it was recruiting 2,500 drivers and pickers to expand its home delivery service amid the coronavirus pandemic; and the recruitment site Indeed reported 1,508 new delivery driver vacancies between just the 18th and 20th March

At the beginning of March, ParcelHero predicted a doubling of home deliveries as a share of overall retail sales by the peak of the crises. That looks to be largely on course, with some sectors such as deliveries of DIY tools up 88% compared to January, and online grocery sales up 13% on February – a figure likely to rise significantly as supply chains interruptions and driver shortages are solved. Of course, home deliveries’ doubling of overall share of sales doesn’t necessarily equate to a boom, as the overall retail sales figure for March looks severely reduced.

There have been some sectors that have been unexpectedly hit. Who would have predicted a number of huge fashion brands would axe their online sales as well as store sales, to ensure the safety of distribution workers? Many other ‘non-essential’ business have begun to follow suit. It’s a sad step for those retailers who can’t keep their online operation going, but it does mean capacity is maintained for urgent deliveries.

One thing we can say for certain in these uncertain times is that retailers, and home delivery drivers in particular, deserve praise and respect for showing flexibility and, let’s say it, some bravery, in continuing to work; as the front door becomes the front line in the fight against the coronavirus.

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