Thanks to mobility and almost constant connectivity, we can now shop anywhere at any time. While this certainly benefits all consumers, the impact on rural customers is hard to ignore. Located far from brick and mortar retailers, buying virtually anything you want online and having it delivered to your doorstep has transformed not only rural consumers’ expectations but also retail business models.

The New Distribution Dilemma

Not surprisingly, convenience has driven the appeal for rural online commerce due to the distance to physical store locations. Servicing the increasing demand of these customers, however, has turned into a losing proposition for some retailers due to the cost of delivery. To help offset these costs, retailers are turning to new technologies and innovative distribution models to increase efficiencies and minimize costs throughout the supply chain. Opportunities to innovate the rural retail model readily exist.

Explore New Roles for Existing Retailers

Retailers could tap into existing retailers that already have a presence in rural markets. Today, for example, there are over 30,000 dollar stores of various brands throughout rural America. Already serviced by a very efficient and optimized distribution network offering regular store deliveries, they could serve as a hub for other retailers and offer endless aisle e-commerce with free pick-up in store. Leveraging existing physical stores as e-commerce hubs would require more advanced processes from order entry, through distribution centers and right to the stores themselves, but could be an interesting solution to explore.

Expand Parcel Partnerships

The United States Postal Service (USPS) has a delivery capability to every consumer in the U.S. today. Many commercial parcel carriers have partnerships established to handoff last mile delivery to USPS where they can drive efficiencies through higher delivery density. FedEx and UPS already rely on USPS for this service.

Investigate New Courier Options

In the Gig economy, you only need a smartphone and a car to be an Uber or Lyft driver. Why not crowd-sourced courier delivery? The same principle applies and could enhance service while providing an alternative cost strategy. Autonomous driving and delivery will likely also make its debut in these areas someday.

For retailers today, it’s not how consumers order, but how they deliver that has the greatest implications for their business. The omnichannel retail model is already well established. But in order to remain profitable, they need to keep shipping costs in line. In an era where shipping is “free,” or should be in consumers’ minds, it remains a very costly part of the retail distribution equation.

The Role of Technology in Fleet Management and Delivery

Whether you leverage your own private fleet of vehicles for distribution or if you work with a network of carriers, your customers care about their orders from the moment they place them until they are delivered, and everywhere in between. Maximizing truck utilization and driver productivity for efficient route planning requires real-time visibility of vehicle locations, assurance of fleet performance and safe communication with drivers throughout the day.

Advanced fleet management and delivery operations solutions provide greater visibility throughout the supply chain, making it easy for customers to better plan for the receipt of their order and see the full contents and history of a shipment. That same technology also allows drivers to easily scan pieces, parcels, pallets and even whole containers at every step to dynamically record their pickup or delivery, plus they can electronically capture signatures and take high-quality photos to validate work performed.

Having the right fleet management and delivery validation technologies in place helps speed deliveries to your customers, enhances transparency and ultimately, ensures your last mile doesn’t become the first reason why your customers look elsewhere.

Ralph Lieberthal is Principal, Transportation & Logistics, Zebra Technologies. Armed with over 30 years in this industry, Ralph works with global customers to leverage the best technologies for the customer which may include: data collection (handheld devices, RFID, and in-vehicle computers), communications (WLAN and WWAN), telematics technology. He also works with a variety of software developers who offer solutions around telematics, routing, scheduling and dispatching for Transport, P&D operations, XDock, WMS and YMS. Click here for more information about delivery solutions that help meet compliance mandates and increased customer service expectations.