Interview with Andrew Firmston-Williams. CEO, EVMI Solutions

Andrew Firmston-Williams is CEO of EVMI Solutions, specialising in zero emissions last mile deliveries. He talked to me about how growth in the home delivery market has been accelerated by the pandemic.

‘The traditional shopping model is blown’

We’ve seen a tremendous hit to the high street during the pandemic. This coincides with a fundamental change that’s been happening anyway – the traditional shopping model is blown.

It won’t go back to the way it was. Some of the high street operators are adapting to this, and some are going out of business.

Conventional operators that still want to operate as part of their local community will need to raise their game – to justify their bricks and mortar presence. They are starting to find smarter ways to bring their goods to customers’ doorsteps.

‘Our urban centres will look very different’

Many changes were already happening, and these have been accelerated by the pandemic.

In a few years from now, our urban centres will look very different. There will be a lot fewer physical stores and a lot more delivery vehicles.

That will fundamentally change our infrastructure needs. There will be much repurposing. We’re already seeing some of the big operators doing exactly that.

For example, some big stores are repurposing their buildings for community living. And a number of the car park operators are planning to repurpose their estates of town centre parking into micro-distribution centres.

But these changing habits aren’t necessarily going to decongest our streets. What’s been relieved with commuter traffic may be replaced by delivery traffic.

‘My focus is upon micro-mobility – small, nimble vehicles’

A travesty of the pandemic and our efforts to reduce congestion is that it’s exacerbated the volume of deliveries. There are now 1000s of petrol mopeds operating 24/7 across our cities.

There’s also far too many vans, be they diesel or electric, travelling down narrow congested streets with their cargo-holds three-quarters empty. Let’s not pretend that’s sustainable.

If we’re going to make a significant difference in the short term, it will be by changing the fulfilment methods for last-mile delivery.

We need to start looking at the carbon and pollution emitted per kilogram or litre of goods that are transported in that last mile for the benefit of both the delivery operators and the communities they serve.

There’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ and my focus is on micro-mobility as one way to swing the decarbonisation needle. Small, nimble vehicles, right-sized for the characteristics demanded for delivery in the last mile, such as electric mopeds, 3-wheelers and electric-assisted bicycles.

‘Mid-range restaurants have had to transition to deliveries’

Dark kitchens are springing up everywhere since the pandemic. They’re an attempt by the restaurant trade to pivot around the fact that people aren’t visiting as freely as they used to.

And many mid-range restaurants have had to transition to deliveries very quickly, using companies like Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat. These operators are in a very competitive landscape and looking for ways to differentiate themselves.

I hope that public sentiment will increasingly push them towards decarbonized deliveries while using technology to preserve freshness and quality of delivered to the safety of our own homes.

‘We’re seeing many dark stores springing up’

The big grocery delivery companies are starting to invest in express fulfilment. They recognise that they need to be in that space. For example, Ocado has opened a facility in North London called Ocado Zoom. It’s all about hyper-local delivery. We will increasingly see these around London and other cities.

And many new dark stores are springing up as a result of the pandemic – with operators offering rapid on-demand local and hyper-local deliveries. There’s a lot of investment going into that sector right now.

One of the biggest in the sector is Gorillas. They have already teamed up with Tesco to make 10 minute local deliveries. Although I believe that Tesco will eventually develop its own solution. The big supermarket operators want to ‘own’ their customers. So outsourcing is only likely to be preserved if it’s a dedicated, branded service.

What will emerge is a graduated offer. For those people that want a 10-15 minute delivery, they can have that. But that’s only a proportion and can’t cover the full range of goods you find on supermarket shelves. Others will be happy to wait for one or two hours. And for those that are content to wait until the next day it will be a different offer again.

‘Catering to the increased importance of local communities’

These rapid fulfilment offers are an alternative to the corner store. The convenience factor of popping around the corner is, to some extent, being eaten away by larger operators.

But I don’t believe that the corner store is dead. Although they will have to offer home delivery services – to extend their reach and compete.

That’s one of the positive effects of the pandemic – catering to the increased importance of local communities. People have appreciated what their local community and environment means to them.

So they can go online and have things delivered from a familiar local store, as part of an enhanced service.

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