Walmart seduced by false promise of drone delivery

Like Amazon, Walmart wants to try drone deliveries. Here's why it still won't work.

Walmart delivery drones
Don McCullough (CC BY 2.0)

I get it. Drones are sexy. The military loves them. Teenagers want to use them to take selfies. And big retailers want to deliver packages and groceries with them. But just because drones are the hottest devices on or off the planet right now, that doesn't mean drone deliveries are a good idea.

Walmart's plans are a little different, though. Instead of using the drones to deliver items from stores to customers' homes, as Amazon and other retailers have proposed, according to Reuters Walmart is reportedly looking into a couple of shorter-range strategies.

Apparently, one aspect of the plan is to use drones to deliver goods from the store to shoppers' cars in the parking lot. The other is to equip delivery vehicles with drones designed to carry items from the truck to the customers' home.

Reuters quotes Walmart Walmart spokesman Dan Toporek saying, "Drones have a lot of potential to further connect our vast network of stores, distribution centers, fulfillment centers and transportation fleet. There is a Walmart within five miles of 70 percent of the U.S. population, which creates some unique and interesting possibilities for serving customers with drones."

Unique and interesting? Maybe. Practical? Not so much. 

It's always possible I'm missing something important here, but this seems even dumber than Amazon's plan. Last spring, I had no trouble coming up with 10 reasons Amazon's drone scheme wouldn't fly. Many of those objections also apply to Walmart's flirtation with driverless flying delivery systems, including high costs, difficulties handling heavy items, bad weather, accidents, and the need for backup systems when the drones are grounded.

Sure, the short-range nature of Walmart's plans could help alleviate concerns about hacking, theft, and vandalism of the drones. But it doesn't take long to think of issues particular to Walmart's focus on shorter drone flights. 

It's a parking lot, for heaven's sake!

First of all, with all those quick runs, someone is going to have to spend a lot of time loading and unloading the items. Is it really worth the effort to put a loaf of bread into a drone to fly 50 yards from the store to a car in the parking lot?

Once there, where is the drone going to land? If cars have to line up at designated landing areas, why couldn't they just do that right where the products are stored and skip the whole flight? And what percentage of drones do you think will get run over? 

Next, how is the customer going to remove the item? And what if it takes them a long time to get around to it? (Maybe they're busy comforting a crying child, for example?) I picture a sea of cars and people waiting around for their drone to arrive, when they could have just used a shopping cart to fetch their purchases themselves.

In fact, that's the biggest issue with the parking lot idea. Why would you want to use a flying drone to make deliveries in a giant field of asphalt? Seems like it would make a lot more sense to use ground-based vehicles in a flat, vehicle-oriented environment like that. Using wheels has got to be easier and cheaper than trying to lift everything into the air, right?

Delivery trucks = aircraft carriers?

But while the parking lot plan may be silly and pointless, there are even more problems with using delivery trucks to launch drones to carry goods up the buyer's home.

First, pretty much all of the problems that trouble Amazon's plans also apply in this scenario. Out in the field you can't control the environment, and the drones could easily fall victim to hazards ranging from bored teenagers to hungry canines.

And again, what do you really save here? Unless you have a fleet of drones on each truck, the vehicle still needs to visit every customer's house. And what if the buyer lives in, I don't know, an apartment? Can the drones ring the buzzer? Can the drones figure out to leave the box under the porch? Can the drones even go under the porch? The truck driver is still going to have to make plenty of hand deliveries. They might save a few minutes here and there, at the cost of additional processes and complexities.

My view is far from universal, of course. While concerned about regulatory issues, Barry Clogan, SVP of business consulting services at MyWebGrocer, for example, said “Walmart has the scale to make the use case for drones. Even if Walmart never delivers a single product with drones, the company is unlikely to figure out how to give customers the immediacy of service they expect, and that drones can provide, without investing in the possibilities that technology has to offer.”

As noted, I get the appeal of drone delivery, and I guess it makes sense to experiment. But we remain a loooooong way from making drone deliveries practical and economical. So go ahead, Walmart, test away. But let's be realistic, drone delivery isn't going mainstream any time soon.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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