Earlier this month Amazon, the largest online retailer in the world, revealed it is conducting tests on unmanned drones to make deliveries to customers.
The news was greeted with a mixture of amusement and alarm. Book seller Waterstones responded by issuing a statement of their own joking that they were training owls to make deliveries. Others wondered about safety issues and the impact of other companies following suit resulting in hundreds of drones in the skies.
But how close is Amazon to reaching its goal and what impact would the promised rapid delivery times have on attempts to revive the high street.
Well the first thing to say is that those who are anxiously watching the skies hoping for drone delivered Christmas gifts are more likely to see a sleigh pulled by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It could take up to five years for the new service to start.
However, Amazon appears to be serious about the project. According to Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, the drones will be able to deliver packages weighing up to 2.3 kg to customers within 30 minutes of an order being placed. This represents around 86 per cent of items delivered by Amazon.
Amazon’s service will be called Prime Air and the announcement comes as the company is looking for ways to improve efficiency as a means of generating growth. But it must wait for permission from US regulators before the drones will be allowed to pick up packages from its warehouses and deliver them to its customers’ doorsteps.
Currently the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not yet approved the use of unmanned drones for civilian purposes. However, the FAA has approved the use of drones for government agencies and police services and has issued 1,400 permits over recent years.
Furthermore, air space is expected to be opened up to civilian drones in the United States by 2015 and in Europe by the following year, removing the obstacles to commercial use.
Initially, the service would be restricted to customers living within a short radius of Amazon distribution warehouses, and doubts remain about the accuracy of the technology, which could result in deliveries ending up in a neighbour’s backyard.
But, in time, these difficulties are certain to be overcome, resulting in an expansion of the service. Rival companies would then be likely to follow suit guaranteeing same day deliveries.
This would rob the high street of what, for many, remains its chief advantage over online shopping – the immediacy of the transaction. Given that the high street continues to struggle in the face of (among other factors) competition from the internet, this would present yet another obstacle to recovery.
Despite this, a recent IPSOS/MORI poll for the British Property Federation (BPF) revealed that over eight out of 10 adults in the UK (83%) still believe that the high street is better for buying some items than shopping online.
Successful high streets provide the right mix of retail outlets and a pleasant atmosphere in which to shop. Together with cafes, coffee shops and bars, this is something that online shopping can never replicate.
We may have to accept that there will be less shops in the future – and that other uses may have to be found for vacant properties – but the high street still has much to offer at the heart of our communities.
Written in conjunction with Neil Bird
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