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Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of sitting in on a discussion and reading some papers on the Future of Freight Transportation. I specifically would like to acknowledge the work of Steve Sashihara at Princeton Consultants and a recent Supply Chain Digest report that helped shape my ideas for this blog. While I previously had some sense of what was going on (i.e. ecommerce, Amazon) in this sector, I was surprised by the range and profound nature of the changes that are taking place. I would like to share some of the major changes with you.

Manufacturing in the Future

The big drivers of change are automation, digital technology, and robotics. Manufacturing is increasingly being performed by robots; automated systems are sorting the products and then loading them on trucks. Sensors are becoming ubiquitous and are now on products, pallets, SKUs, drivers, facilities, tractors and trailers. Conveyor systems move the right product to the right piece of trucking equipment at the right time. Loading software tells you how and where to load the product on the truck or trailer to maximize cube utilization and avoid load imbalances.

With the advent of 3D printing and artificial intelligence, companies can manufacture their products in the locations closest to their customers and/or distribution facilities. What this tells you is that the jobs of assemblers, sorters, fork lift drivers and loaders will increasingly be replaced by machines. While some manufacturing may come back to the United States or Canada, many of the traditional jobs will not.

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Amazon launched a new mobile phone, the Fire Phone that could be a true “game changer,” not just for mobile communications or retail sales but also for freight transportation. Let me tell you why.

Unlike other cell phone manufacturers, Amazon is looking for e-commerce business, not mass profits from mobile phone sales. That is the raison d’etre for this phone. Like Apple, they have created an entire ecosystem. Unlike Apple, their ecosystem is not based on selling just computer hardware and software such as iTunes, iPads and iPhones. Amazon wants their hundreds of millions of registered users to buy books, consumer electronics, toys, household supplies and toasters from their massive warehouses of products.

Amazon has a huge inventory of data on consumer preferences and purchasing behavior. It can tailor its marketing messages to specific target markets and then cross-sell them on purchasing other lenses for a camera or tennis clothes to go with the purchase of a new tennis racquet. Amazon’s Firefly technology allows the user to point the phone at an object and then be transferred to an Amazon website that will sell you the product. This is a neat trick (e.g. clever software) that will allow impulse buyers to obtain instant gratification.

Last but not least, the purchase of the Amazon Fire phone provides the user with a free one year subscription to the Amazon Prime $99 a year freight delivery service. So as the user sees a product in a magazine or store, the Fire Phone can take you immediately to a website that will sell you the product and suggest others that you may like. With another click on the Fire, the user can then arrange to have the goods delivered to their home or office within two business days. Clearly the Amazon Fire is trying to create a new e-commerce business model. Like every other new business model, it will take some time to gain traction. If, and more likely when it does, it could dramatically change the world of freight transportation.

The Amazon Fire will allow consumers to “point, shop and ship” almost anywhere, any time. The speed and simplicity will appeal to anyone who prefers to look at a photo and shop without going to a mall or even searching online to find an object. Of course, the Fire Phone has a number of other interesting features like 3-D imaging and an enhanced camera so it can compete with other mobile phones.

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E-commerce purchases make up 5 percent of Sales in the United States and about 3.4 percent in Canada. These relatively small percentages may cause retailers and trucking companies to downplay the role that e-commerce is having and will have on this sector on this sector. This would be a huge mistake.

Dramatic changes are coming to almost all facets of the retail sector. In the home entertainment and book distribution segment, retailers are changing product lines and the customer buying process experience. A trip to the local Chapters or Indigo store will open your eyes to the types of transformations under way. As online music sales have escalated in recent years, CDs have been almost totally removed from store shelves and books constitute a much lower percentage of the floor space. In their place, you will find dolls, toys, gifts, glassware, e-readers and tablets, blankets and a host of other items. Since so many Dell computers and other high tech products have been purchased online for the past 20 years, consumers are very confident in buying products in this manner.

A visit to the local Loblaw’s store will highlight a much larger footprint and a greatly expanded product line. Take-out meals, sushi counters, organic and non-organic food counters, in-house restaurants and a host of other changes have greatly expanded the size of these giant stores. Staples, Toys “R” Us and Best Buy Co. Inc. are shrinking their store space, expanding stock rooms for e-commerce distribution or shutting certain outlets. Toys “R” Us is converting more store space to backrooms to fulfill its growing number of online purchases. Later this year it will begin allowing customers to pick up their online orders at its stores.

Meanwhile in the United States, Amazon is investing in distribution centres in the major markets so it can provide same day delivery to its customers. This will allow them to take direct aim at a range of retailers in these markets. As they increase their e-commerce business, they will continue to draw more business away from traditional retailers.

Retailers are scratching their heads as to the appropriate footprints for their stores, the correct assortment of products, the marketing approaches they should use for their brick and mortar operations and e-commerce operations and whether to shutter or add stores.

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