Gianfranco Fancello and Francesco Piras, University of Cagliari
Over the last years, pushed by the fasted-paced evolution of services provided by the online websites and changes in people’s lifestyles, there has been a growth in the number of last-mile operations and deliveries, which contribute to congestion, road safety and pollution of the cities.
The traditional structure of restocking of neighborhood shops, and hence of buying goods in such shops, is being increasingly modified by new forms of purchase and distribution, resulting from the Internet. End consumers have modified their behaviour and purchasing decisions over time, gradually switching from traditional distribution channels. This trend has accelerated since the imposition of measures aimed at promoting physical distancing in the attempt to counter the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. In Italy, the first European country, whose national government introduced restrictions on human activities, the number of last-mile deliveries after the lockdown period in 2020 increased of 68.5% (compared to 2019), while the proportion of e-shoppers in the group of internet users grew from 41% in 2016 to 54% in 2020. Such an evolution moves to have sprawled, small and frequent deliveries to the end consumers, as well as new ways to deliver products to customers (e.g., express deliveries – same-day deliveries, as well as instant-deliveries). The pressure on the already congested urban network both in terms of external (e.g., pollutants, noise, bottlenecks for illegal parking – road safety, traffic congestion) and internal costs (e.g., failed deliveries, high delivery costs) has thus increased significantly.
The development of e-commerce has had a large impact on individuals’ travel behaviour and different mechanisms concerning the relationship between individuals’ propensity to buy on-line and in-store have been observed:
- Substitution effect: online purchases delivered to end consumers’ home can be a substitute for purchases made in physical stores;
- Complementarity effect: purchasing goods online may also lead to further trips to physical stores to examine, for example, the characteristics or price of the items or to buy accessories for an item purchased online. Online shopping could be associated with more shopping trips to stores. In fact, in-store shopping allows sensory information to be obtained by seeing, trying, feeling, smelling, tasting or manipulating the desired items, providing individuals with full information about and confidence in the product. Therefore, a trip made for shopping does not necessarily involve a transaction but can be made for purposes such as information research, product testing or a return.
- Neutrality effect: where online shopping and travel behaviour do not measurably interact.
- Modification effect: one or more travel attributes associated with a shopping trip, such as distance, frequency, destination, or time, may change due to online shopping.
These four different mechanisms could differ depending on the type of goods. Indeed, goods can be distinguished between durable goods, grocery products and ready-to-eat meals. It is also important to acknowledge the heterogeneity of end-consumers’ behaviour depending on the type of durable goods. Differences between different kind of products (clothing, beauty, technology, books, furniture) exist and not all of them can be considered identical. Individuals could tend to choose established stores with many years of trading in their town rather than e-shopping retailers, who are unknown and may go out of business without warning. Lastly, the instant possession of items could be important; individuals can immediately own the purchased items, rather than waiting for the items to be delivered after e-shopping. Let’s consider, as an example, the case of clothing items. An individual could find on the web an item of her/his interest but be hesitant to buy it because of the size, the fabric, etc. For this reason, s/he might go physically to the store, see the item and try it. Once seen, if the individual likes it, s/he could decide to purchase it in-store or order it on-line (complementarity effect). This kind of effect could not exist for the case of books, as books are a completely different kind of item and there is no need to try them. The same could apply for some technologies products.
Another source of heterogeneity is connected with the built environment and spatial proximity. Indeed, low shopping accessibility in non-urban areas may promote the use of e-shopping and so we can be in the presence of only a substitution effect or neutrality effect. Instead, for those individuals living in areas characterized by high levels of stores density and diversity, the complementarity and modification effects could be stronger.
The last remark concerns digital accessibility. Digital accessibility, expressed in terms of ease of buying a product on-line, may have an influence on the decision to buy a product in store or on-line. The low level of digital literacy, the lack of trust in digital payment, and as said, the impossibility to receive the product in a short time, the need to be present for receiving (attended deliveries) are all factors that could hinder people from buying items on-line.
From the overview above, it is clear that end-consumers’ behaviour has a significant impact on mobility behaviour, influencing and modifying it and the process of planning should be modified consequently. In the 90s the main aim of transportation planning was to facilitate trips attracted by new shopping centers, which were located at main nodes of the transport network. All the actions and interventions were implemented to increase the accessibility of private cars and public transport, so as to make access to customers and consumers easier and easier. Nowadays this paradigm is changing: it is no longer only end-consumers going where goods are sold (at the physical store), but, with the increasing popularity of shopping on-line, it is the goods moving to the customers (from warehouses to people’s homes).
The distribution chain of products, therefore, need to be rethought and the transport systems redefined. Nevertheless, most of the policies concerning urban logistics proposed in SUMPs do not deal with all these issues and mainly focus on the retailers’ standpoints. Besides, the new strategies should consider that, in addition to the dimension of competitiveness of in-store shopping as opposed to e-shopping, external components of the in-store shopping process also have substantial influence. Shopping as a physical activity provides opportunities to meet needs for social engagement, since going shopping offers time to enjoy oneself, either alone or with friends and family. In-store shopping can also be a source of entertainment, rather than solely a maintenance activity. The function and facilities provided by modern stores (e.g., restaurants, theatres, cafés, etc.) present positive opportunities for enjoying in-store shopping. Furthermore, some shopping trips form part of trip chains for other purposes. Then, only an integrated approach, that take into consideration the needs of all the actors involved within the transportation system, including goods’ ones, could help in formulating strategies that can alleviate the impacts of traffic on the whole urban environment.