'Doorman' kiosk accepts package deliveries when you're not home

The UPS guy just pulled up outside your building with that gotta-have-right-now gadget you ordered online, but you're not home to answer the buzzer, meaning all Mr. Brown will be leaving is a sticky note. ... Third time this week, too.

The missed delivery is a bane of apartment and condo living (unless your swanky address has a real doorman), as well as a costly drain on the major package-delivery services. But now this problem also is offering an interesting business opportunity to a trio of MIT grads behind a startup called IdentiCert, maker of easyQube. The latter is a networked set of locker-like receptacles located in or near your building, into which will go your arriving package - or dry cleaning - when you are unavailable. You can also send packages via the same service, which will cost $10 per month per household and is being tested at a half-price discount in a half-dozen Boston-area locations.

Cubes

The company says there were 800 million missed residential deliveries in 2005 (don't ask me where they got that number), so you can think of this as addressing the package-delivery industry's last-mile problem. I've been swapping e-mail with IdentiCert co-founder Jorge Calzada, who right off the bat cleared up my confusion about who it is actually putting the packages in the easyQube; it's not Mr. Brown - think about the logistical and contractual challenges there - but rather a middleman "delivery partner" signed on with IdentiCert. What follows is an edited question-and-answer:

I'm having trouble understanding how the deliveries are getting into the easyQube, or, more precisely, how the delivery-service personnel are gaining access to the individual easyQubes. Could you explain that end?

"All of our delivery partners have smart cards or one-time-use bar codes that allow them access to load packages into the easyQube kiosks. The kiosks (through our IT system) know which packages are coming in advance, so it knows which packages to accept and to whom a package belongs.

"IT integration with all the major carriers would be a monumental task that would have taken many years and millions of dollars. Instead, we've devised a way to require no integration from any shipper or carrier. Instead, our users give out a proxy address, which is the delivery address of our delivery partners and a unique user ID.

"Let me trace the travels of a typical package:

"Our member orders something online: He or she gives out a different shipping address, something like this: easyQube TypicalUser1234, 123 Main Street, Anytown USA 99999. The merchant sends the package to that shipping address using any carrier they desire.

"Our delivery partner receives the package on the first delivery attempt. They log it into our IT system through an administrative interface. The administrative tool helps the delivery partner sort the package to the final destination associated with the unique ID. The administrative tool also lets the delivery partner know if there is capacity at the kiosk to accept the package. If there is not enough space, we can bounce the package to another nearby location or queue it for a day until space is freed up (depending on the user's preference).

"Our delivery partner delivers the package to the kiosk. They use their digital credentials to identify themselves and the package. The kiosk notifies our IT system, which sends out a notification to the member (typically via e-mail or SMS) that their package is ready for pick-up. The user comes and picks up the package at their convenience (24 hours a day). The kiosk notifies all parties that the package has been picked up and notifies our IT system that additional capacity is available at the kiosk."

I'm particularly interested in the security angle, both physical security in terms of the easyQubes and packages they hold, but also the security of customer and shipping-company information. What are some of the safeguards you have in place?

"Here we have gone above and beyond to make sure all personal information is safe-guarded. All information is encrypted using the highest encryption methods on the market, especially information stored on our system or information sent to the kiosks. The qubeCards we give to our members are top of the line smart cards.

"The lockers are very robust and take a lot of abuse. The kiosk is constantly notifying our IT system that it is operating normally. If it has been tampered/broken into, we would be notified immediately. If someone cut the power to it, we would now that as well, as there is an integrated battery back-up. Finally, we have a camera on the kiosks to discourage tampering."

Could you describe the network technology involved.

Each kiosk is connected to our IT system, allowing us to track the status of kiosks and packages real time. The network technology used will depend on the location. We just need any connection to the Internet. We can use a Wi-Fi connection, an Ethernet connection, a regular phone modem, or as a last resort, we can use a GPRS cellular wireless modem to connect to our IT system. Currently, there is no need for connection to the shippers, but in the future, we can allow shippers to integrate via our IT system to better improve the consumer experience all the way to delivery.

What types of buildings and businesses do you envision hosting the kiosks?

"We want to place our kiosks in as many logical locations as possible. For us, the low-hanging fruit are large apartment buildings and condominium buildings, where we would locate the kiosk in the lobby, laundry room, garage, or countless other unused spaces. Universities are also very attractive because of the early adopter mentality of college students and the large population living on campus. We're talking with several large employers in the area who are thinking of offering this to their employees as a fringe benefit."

What guarantees that your delivery partner will be available for that first delivery attempt, which seems so important to making all of this work?

"The service level is something that has been negotiated ahead of time and something we will monitor very carefully with our supplier. They have excess capacity and the desire to grow. From their point of view, it is like supplying a vending machine, which is another business they do for many other companies. We see it as a very good symbiotic relationship."

Does the recipient of the package have any obligation to pick it up within a specific period of time? If not, do you run the risk of procrastinators clogging up your boxes?

"Yes, we do build in an additional charge if they leave it in for a prolonged period of time (3 days). Honestly, that has not been an issue. We haven't charged anyone yet. Everyone picks it up the same night. Why? Because it's not a package to them, it's something they ordered and wanted. If you are away on vacation, we will store it until you come back and then deliver it to the kiosk."

It strikes me that at the price you're charging ($10/month) you'd be targeting the type of individual who sends and/or receives packages on a regular basis, as opposed to the type who buys something online from time to time. Is that a fair assessment, or do you see this appealing to a broader audience?

"We don't view it as heavy users versus casual users. We take the stress out of chasing packages and the stress out of racing to the dry-cleaners before they close. The appeal of easyQube is for all people who value convenience and their time. We do think that people living in the city without front porches will probably value our services more than other locations. That said, there are plenty of news stories out there of packages being stolen from front porches in suburbia.

"We've calculated that we save the average user about six hours a month (based on averages for monthly package receiving and dry-cleaning usage). Usually, people run these errands on the weekend or late at night. To us, $10 per month is a bargain to have your Saturdays, Sundays, and weeknights free to spend with friends and family, especially considering that high-end residential buildings charge around $200 to $400 a month to staff a doorman to provide some of these same services."

Finally, what do you see as your biggest obstacle to success?

"We see that people are ordering more and more online and this shows no sign of stopping. We see that more and more people are living in the city and in highly populated urban environments, not just in the U.S., but around the world. We see that people are working more hours, trying to do more things at once, and that what little time they have to relax or spend with friends and family is very valuable. Lastly, we see a major trend towards self-service automation.

"But to answer your question, the biggest obstacle to success is consumer adoption, which is true of any new innovation in the marketplace. Can we place our kiosks close enough to the right people, those who value these services the most. To address this, we are working hard to provide as many locations and as much convenience as possible."

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