From Ponies to Robots: The Innovation of Shipping Logistics

Arguably, the most important part of e-commerce is shipping. It's the moment of truth that defines the experience. Logistics must be efficient and accurate.


In the spring of 1860, express delivery took off in America, literally. Information traveled from the East to the West in just 10 days. From Missouri to California, it went by horseback. It was called the Pony Express. Riders were small in stature, lightweight and mostly teenagers. The Pony Express lasted just 18 months, but the legend lived on. And the commitment to innovative delivery, even under the harshest conditions, grew.

The institution of delivery took a major leap forward with the launch of Amazon in the summer of 1995. It began as a website that sold books. The company was formed in the garage of a guy named Jeff Bezos. He was just 30 years old with limited funding. It was an instant hit. The Amazon website sold books in all 50 states and 45 countries around the world in just its first month. Bezos and his staff took the orders, packed the books and drove them to the post office.

Innovators are risk-takers. They see things before others do. Amazon's model changed the world. We were entering the digital age. There was no guarantee of success. Far from it. The Amazon Effect completely changed consumer purchase habits and disrupted retail forever. It's incredible to think about what's transpired in just a score and a quarter years' time. The Amazon empire is nearly a $2 trillion tech titan.

Amazon is an iconic American success story. There have been many. In 1886, a man named Richard Sears founded a watch company in Minnesota. Sears was a train station agent at the time. He devised a plan to sell watches by mail and rail. A year later, Sears moved to Chicago. He hired a guy named Alvah Curtis Roebuck who repaired watches. The duo launched a mail-order catalog, expanding to other items several years later. The Sears, Roebuck & Co. brand took off.

In my eyes, Richard Sears was the original retail disruptor. The catalog changed the course for shopping, and Mr. Sears wrote the catalogs himself. Sears, Roebuck & Co. was the Amazon of the 19th and 20th centuries. The company experienced massive growth by selling a wide range of goods to rural areas that previously had no convenient access. Most of the merchandise traveled by train. It ushered in a new age for logistics. It opened new markets. Efficiencies of transport continued to garner attention.

A century later, a student at Yale wrote a paper about the limitations of service by air freight companies. That was in 1965. His name was Frederick Smith. Mr. Smith bought a controlling interest in an aviation company in Arkansas. The company shipped 186 packages in 14 small aircrafts from Memphis on its first day. That was 1973. It was the beginning of FedEx. Today, Mr. Smith is still the boss.

Logistics: It's everything in the shipping business, and it's been tested big time during the pandemic. UPS came up with the simple slogan "We Love Logistics." That replaced the much less popular "What can brown do for you?" FedEx has its own catchy slogan: "The World on Time"

The connected world has packages shipped round the clock, around the world. Nearly 500 million pieces of mail are delivered every day by the U.S. Postal Service, and nearly 35 million packages are estimated to be delivered each day by FedEx and UPS.

Arguably, the most important part of e-commerce is shipping. It's the moment of truth that defines the experience. Logistics must be efficient and accurate. Of course, that element is completely invisible to the customer. They only know whether the package arrived on time and in good shape. There's so much that happens along the way.

What's delivery going to look like in the future? Here's a concept that's becoming a reality. A startup named Kiwibot builds delivery robots. These bots have a camera enabling them to navigate around objects. They are semi-autonomous. That means they are controlled and supported remotely by humans. These remote operators provide path planning and adjustments along the route and can take direct control of the bot if there's a problem. That's the internet of things in motion.

Ultimately, if robots are developed to be less reliant on humans, they could be used in hospitals, warehouses, prisons, airports, military combat missions and so many other areas. The opportunity ahead is seemingly limitless.

Automation continues to drive delivery and logistics. Efficiencies keep improving with scale. Many people are concerned that it comes at the expense of jobs. That is true to an extent. But increased efficiencies and automation reduce costs, which benefit the consumer. Besides, many of the automated tasks are jobs people generally don't want. Machines also play an important role in safety, performing tasks that might be dangerous for human labor.

Innovation is the key ingredient to the American way. Our history is littered with it.

Here's what I see in our future: Retail will still have stores. The stores will have a synchronized relationship with the worldwide web. Delivery is a must; Covid-19 simply accelerated the irreversible trend. Logistical sophistication will make it happen.

Whatever the new normal will look like, it will be innovative, and the American consumer will want it. It's no longer about the future. The future is now. Knowledge is power.

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