Soar Wars

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\"\"Look up in the sky! It’s a bird…it’s a plane. No, it’s those Louboutins you ordered.

That might not be too far from reality given the frenzy over drones and their potential in retail.

We have the fertile mind and tongue-in-cheek attitude of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to thank for that. Since he unveiled Amazon’s flying fantasies on CBS 60 Minutes last year, there are stories almost daily about their commercial use. Bezos is not alone. DLH is already doing drone deliveries in Germany, and FedEx and Google are working on it here in the U.S.

In Japan, which is always serious about technology, the Yamaha Motor Company is developing drone technology and the government has formed a panel to encourage private companies to come up with ideas on how and where they can be used in “drone zones.”

Flying Feet

In March, Crocs opened a pop up store in Tokyo that used drones to deliver shoes to customers who ordered them at an in-store kiosk. Called the “Flying Norlin” project, customers chose their shoes, hit the “take off” button and magnet-equipped drones were supposed to deliver the shoes to a waiting basket. Some were dropped in mid-flight and couple of others flew into customers. No one was hurt and it probably created more buzz (pardon the pun) than harm.

But I keep getting this mental picture of a drone picking up a small Asian child by mistake and dropping him off at the checkout counter.

McDonald\’s hosted several sessions at the recent South by Southwest arts festival in Austin encouraging entrepreneurs to consider door-to-door delivery making drive-thru’s obsolete. As the chain said: \”Imagine a world where drones could deliver you food while you\’re driving down the highway.” I don’t know what you’d do if the drones got the order wrong or delivered it to the wrong car. Sounds like a recipe for foodie road rage. But clearly we are only limited by our own imaginations.

Pioneering Transport

But maybe it’s time to take a serious—or semi-serious—look at the possibility of drone technology ushering in a new era of retail transport. Analysts have pointed out that transportation has been responsible for the evolution of retail. Think about it. Where would this industry be without airlines, railroads and trucks to bring merchandise to the store, or the cars, buses and subways that bring customers to stores and malls?

Is it surprising that commercial drones have fired up people’s imaginations and are already considered by some futurists as a pioneering effort in logistics and customer service?

In fact, a retail study by B2B public relations firm Walker Sands found that two-thirds of consumers expect to receive their first drone-delivered package in the next five years and nearly 80 percent are willing to pay for it.

The reality is that with the right regulations, equipment and skilled operators, drones could be used throughout the supply chain. Larger military-style drones could shuttle product from busy ports to nearby distribution centers, bypassing lengthy unloading times and bringing fresh food or other products to market faster (Shhhh! Don’t tell the Teamsters.)

At the DCs, drones could move products from the loading docks to designated slots in the warehouse or to trucks faster and more accurately then human pickers using forklifts and pick-to-voice systems.

At retail, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) could be used for site selection or security, monitoring traffic patterns inside and outside the store, and to replenish shelves by synching with the retailer’s front-end system. And if I may be allowed a bit of editorial whimsy here, drones are never late for their shifts, don’t call out and never talk back.

When I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our crumbling infrastructure I’m still disappointed that the flying cars “Popular Science” promised me in 1958 have yet to materialize. Considering what’s happening, I may see the drones first.



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