Triple Access Planning

Pointing out the shopping behaviour for promoting sustainability in urban areas

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.

Triple Access Planning

The benefits of TAP approach in planning urban freight distribution

The freight urban transport, finalised to satisfy the demand for goods and services in urban areas, due to:

  • the complexity of the shopping that governs the freight distribution,
  • the high number of actors and decision-makers within the supply-chain with their reciprocal relationships that are nowadays increasingly virtual (digital connectivity),
  • its relevant interactions with the whole urban system (physical mobility),
  • both the structure of residences and the service distribution (spatial proximity),

can be described/represented through the notion of Triple Access System (TAS).

In fact, it is now well known that, in order to identify adequate solutions for the whole urban mobility system, the freight counterpart cannot be neglected. Therefore, to improve the urban freight distribution, it is necessary to investigate the structure and organisation of the whole supply chain that allows user to satisfy his/her needs of acquiring goods (shopping). Since only by focusing on the characteristics of the end consumer, on her/his purchase behaviour (according to the different types of goods and products) and therefore on her/his specific needs to be satisfied, it is possible to understand which is the most suitable way to guarantee this freight distribution, minimising impacts and maximising the effects on the whole urban system. This new perspective therefore means that the issue of urban freight transport and logistics must be addressed by looking at the freight delivering both towards the physical shops (shopping at stores) and directly to end consumer (online shopping including home delivery of different types).

Using, therefore, this new double reading key (at store and online), how can urban freight planning benefit from the Triple Access Planning approach?

  1. Physical Mobility: any freight distribution model cannot obviously disregard an adequate transport system (this is one of the value increases that characterises the whole supply chain): these concern both aspects falling within the competence of transport companies and couriers (e.g. definition of vehicle routing for freight delivering , optimisation of delivery times and of vehicle load), and those falling within the competence of municipalities operating through road management policies and organisation of loading and unloading spaces (delivery bays, time windows, limited traffic zones, etc.). The objective, in this case, is to minimise the effects on traffic flows, especially in terms of distances, land occupation and therefore congestion, road accidents and emissions.
  2. Spatial proximity: if an efficient freight delivery is based on a minimisation of distances between the shipper and the receiver, the new approach proposed here focuses on users’ activity who request goods and benefit from the urban freight delivery system. Indeed, , a large part of the success of shopping at physical shops (but the same applies to pick-up/delivery points – in online shopping systems) is based on the spatial proximity of shops to residences and workplaces (the idea of the “city in 15 minutes” is mainly based on this concept), in order to optimise consumers’ needs while minimising network effects. It is therefore necessary to know the attitudes and decision-making process of the end consumers (who can make purchases both in-store and online) in order to be able to plan the location of shop, residences and workplaces in an integrated way to make this proximity coherent.
  3. Digital connectivity: it is evident how the wide diffusion of ICT systems has totally transformed the shopping chain, introducing online shopping, which was almost non-existent until 20 years ago while now governs a large part of the market, offering delivery models increasingly aimed at satisfying end consumers’ needs (also with deliveries of ready meals, home deliveries of purchases made in physical urban shops). Such systems also have a strong impact on the business of shopping stores as they allow for a better planning of urban delivery systems, optimising flows, and minimising impacts.

From what has been described, therefore, it is evident how the proper planning of the different components of accessibility for the urban freight distribution has a great advantage in implementing the Triple Access Planning approach, since it integrates the three basic and central aspects that characterise the entire shopping activity: spatial proximity, digital connectivity and physical mobility.

Moreover, this approach also makes it possible to better answer to some uncertainty elements due to exogenous and endogenous factors that are typical of urban planning but which, in the case of shopping, are even more evident.

With regard to the former (exogenous factors), the recent pandemic has in fact highlighted how online shopping has been able, albeit temporarily, to best respond to end consumers’ needs during periods of severe crisis and lockdown (user-side access to goods not otherwise available, operator-side reduction of the problems of failed deliveries); furthermore, the current global energy crisis is directing urban distribution more and more towards the use of sustainable and low-consumption vehicles, addressing companies towards forms of consolidation that maximise load capacity for the same number of kilometres travelled (opportunities for telematics to support/foster load sharing and propose new delivery models).

But also referring to the latter, i.e. endogenous factors, the issue of uncertainty appears to be central: in urban freight transport, in fact, unlike passengers’ transport, the number of decision-makers increase, and thus so does the uncertainty due to their behaviours and decisions. In addition to municipalities, transport companies and citizens/end-consumers (decision-makers in passengers’ transport), in the case of shopping there are also retailers who have strong specific needs and objectives to pursue, often diverging and conflicting with at least one of the other three decision-making categories, with a subsequent increase of the level of uncertainty in the decision-making processes.

Added to this, there are other levels of uncertainty typical of shopping, such as, for example, the influence of marketing (especially in the launch of new products unknown to the market), the trend of fashions and customer habits (globalised but often fluctuating with respect to factors that are difficult to predict), the globalisation of production (we are in a single large global market), the trend of stock exchanges that influence the price level of certain primary goods, etc.

It is therefore evident that in the face of these aspects, the Triple Access System approach appears more suitable for analysing and adequately describing urban freight transport planning processes, as it allows, at the best way, the integration of the aspects that characterise it, helps to minimise the risks determined by uncertainties, and therefore permits more resilient and sustainable actions to be proposed.

Gianfranco Fancello is Associate Professor at Università degli studi di Cagliari, and member of the Triple Access Planning for Uncertain Futures team.