business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

There was a good column earlier this week in the Houston Chronicle that posed an interesting question: What would happen if retailers decided to be deliberately mindful about their impact on the environment?

Here's a reality check from the piece:

"More than two-thirds of Americans will likely shop online this season, and last year shippers delivered 87 billion parcels according to shipping services firm Pitney Bowes. That’s 2,760 packages per second and a 15 percent increase over 2017.

"That number is only rising as Amazon and Walmart compete for customers with low-cost and same-day delivery.

"Achieving that level of speed, though, is wasteful. Rather than pack multiple items in one box for delivery in a few days, companies are sending out multiple boxes delivered by multiple drivers."

And, the fact is that "transportation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. In its sustainability reports, FedEx said it emitted 15.1 million metric tons of CO2 in 2017. UPS reported 13.8 million metric tons, and the U.S. Postal Service released 4.3 million metric tons."

The column suggests that bricks-and-mortar retailers might find an appreciative audience if they explained these realities to their shoppers, reminding them "that buying online and picking up in the store has a lower environmental impact than next-day delivery. American shoppers are also a lot more interested in reducing, reusing and recycling than we assume," the story posits, and retailers can take advantage of that.

I tend to agree … to a point.

Yes, I think it can be a mistake to underestimate the degree to which consumers may be willing to change their behavior if they are persuaded that they can make a difference and contribute to positive change. But it also can be a mistake to underestimate the degree to which we all are addicted to convenience. These can be oppositional priorities, and I am not entirely convinced that we will always listen to the better angels of our nature.

But.

It is worth a shot. As someone once said, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Wouldn't it be interesting if traditional retailers positioned themselves as trying to walk this line, developing programs that would help reduce people's trips to the store and stores' trips to deliver to customers? This is way above my pay grade, but I think it is possible that if retailers gave shoppers the ability to opt-in to such programs, they'd be willing. It actually plays right into the replenishment model that we talk about here so often - but instead of being purely as convenience play, it is positioned and engineered as a way of reducing trips and travel.

It is more complicated for Amazon since it has so many distribution centers from which packages are shipped, but I'd certainly be willing to opt in if they offered me the ability to reduce shipments by allowing them to delay some shipments and then combining them for a lighter footprint.

These all are baby steps, but it strikes me that they can take us in the right direction. At the very least, initiating the conversation with consumers could create a more Eyes Open environment.
KC's View: