Drone delivery, the rise of mobile internet, and automation in the supply chain: it’s hard to know which, if any, of these things will lead to lasting change in the world of e-Commerce. They could be flyby fads or they could be revolutionary — only time will tell. However, one thing’s for certain, if you care about online business, then here are some things you’ll definitely need to keep an eye out for in 2017.
1. Automation in the Supply Chain
2017 may well be the year that robots finally begin to enter the workforce properly, though the scale of their impact on the world of work is debatable. Some claim that smart enough artificial intelligence will have the potential to replace doctors and lawyers, but a more a realistic and conservative claim is that automation will have the potential to replace huge sectors of the transport industry.
To quote vlogger CGP Grey, “you may think we’ve been here before, but we haven’t.” (1)
Transport makes up a huge section of the global workforce. While transporting humans through bus and taxi services is a big part of that, most transport jobs involve literally millions of people around the world driving trucks full of goods from country to country and warehouse to warehouse. This is a massive part of any supply chain, whether you’re Amazon or a family-run business, and 2017 could be the year it all changes.
At least, according to Elon Musk it will be. 2017 is the year that Musk claims (2) Tesla’s self-driving cars will be road-legal and commercially available. If he’s right, all of those truck drivers could be replaced by self-driving trucks in the biggest supply chain revolution arguably since Henry Ford developed the modern assembly line. (3)
Even if Musk is wrong, self-driving cars can’t be too far off with Baidu saying 2019, (4) Google saying 2020, (5) and Ford — keen to continue their legacy as giants of the supply chain — saying 2021. (6) For e-Commerce, this will mean more goods delivered at a greater speed. However, if these self-driving cars could talk to each other, to the website, and therefore to customers, then we may finally see the internet of things really kick off too. Speaking of which…
2. e-Commerce Through “The Internet of Things”
In 1999, Kevin Ashton saw past the primitive internet that people were using at the time and coined a term which has only become more relevant as the years have passed: “the Internet of Things.” (7) Ashton looked beyond the white boxy screens of the internet in the late 90’s and imagined an internet of ‘Things’ where phones, cars, and vacuum cleaners could talk to each other in the same way that computers do now.
He was right. Phones aren’t really phones anymore; they are the primary way we access the internet now. (8) Self-driving cars, when released, will all be able to connect to the internet as well. As for vacuum cleaners, they too can connect to the internet — no, seriously. (9)
For e-Commerce, this means whatever businesses want it to mean. Self-driving cars could deliver items ordered via app to a customer’s address and they could have the ability to redirect that self-driving car mid-journey, for a small fee perhaps, if they want it delivered somewhere else.
Heck, maybe you don’t want your package delivered by a car at all. Maybe you don’t even want your package delivered to an address. Imagine if you could get something delivered, via an app, straight to your GPS location in a matter of minutes.
3. Drone Delivery, Aviation Law, and Litigation Law Firms
Amazon already has imagined this, (10) as has Alphabet, (11) as has Silicon-Valley startup Tacocopter. (12) All three companies promise drone delivery in the future, but why not now? What’s stopping them?
The technology is already here. Unmanned drones are perfectly capable of being guided by GPS and delivering packages ordered by an app in a matter of minutes. However, the law hasn’t quite caught up. Tacocopter promised tacos by unmanned drone way back in 2011, but its product has been in its beta-phase for all these years because of the FAA’s ruling that unmanned drones can’t be used for commercial purposes.
Unmanned drones and self-driving cars are being held back by the same safety and legal concerns. After all, if an unmanned vehicle — be it a drone or a car — accidentally kills a pedestrian, who’s at fault? As any litigation law firm (13) will tell you, this is just one of the many legal issues that e-Commerce faces as the technology develops faster than the law can catch up.
Slowly and cautiously, though, unmanned drone delivery is taking baby steps into the real world and 2017 could see the idea finally take off. On December 7th 2016, Amazon revealed that it has been permitted by the law to trial their service to three Amazon Prime Air customers in Cambridge, England.
According to Amazon, during this private trial it has been given the legal green light to deliver in clear conditions only. However, Amazon claims that this is just the beginning and, now that it’s finally started to deliver what it’s promised for years, it’s not going to slow down.
Of course, it’s not just Amazon who are taking big steps forward here. Echodyne claims that it has solved the safety issue for drones (14) with its sense avoid radar technology which, so it claims, is much more advanced than anything Uber, Amazon, or Google have come up with yet.
4. Better e-Commerce Websites for Mobile
Mentioned early was the fact that mobile has taken over desktop as the primary way the internet is now accessed. Foreseeing this change almost two years ago, Google released an update to its search engine algorithm which punished sites that didn’t work properly on mobile. (15)
Now that mobile has officially taken desktops place as the main way we use the internet, e-Commerce websites need to react — if they haven’t already. Your mobile website can’t be an afterthought. Your mobile website is your website. It will be the primary way that your website is seen and, if anything, your desktop website should be the afterthought.
5. The High Street Isn’t Dead
With all of these developments in the world of e-Commerce, it’s easy for online business to get complacent, to think their only competition is with each other.
There’s good reason to be optimistic about e-Commerce. Just as 2016 was a landmark year for mobile internet, so too was 2016 a landmark year for e-Commerce with 51% of us now doing our shopping online. (16) However, this was only according to one study and the high street still accounts for the other 49% of shopping.
Then, of course, there are developments within the world of offline shopping which could turn the tide in the other direction. Unlike with Amazon Prime Air, Amazon Go is here right now (17) (albeit in only a handful of places) and it could well bring millions of people back to offline shops. The idea is that customers can shop without going to a checkout; people walk in, grab their stuff, and leave.
No, Amazon isn’t condoning shoplifting nor are they giving away stuff for free. Rather, Amazon Go uses sensors and a mobile app to track what items have been purchased and customers pay directly through the app. This idea has been able to get off the ground much faster than Amazon Prime Air, simply because if the technology doesn’t work, the only danger is to Amazon’s finances. A crashed drone could possibly kill someone but a broken sensor just means free stuff for a lucky customer.
Amazon Go isn’t the only recent technological development for offline shopping, either. The Powershelf, being developed by Panasonic, promises to revolutionise shopping by automating the process of stock counting, price updating, and even market research. Panasonic claims that the Powershelf (18) will be able to know when it’s running low on items, change prices of items based on supply and demand, and even figure out the gender of shoppers based on what items they take from the Powershelf.
Added to all this, there is the unsteady rise of in-store beacons. A technology developed in 2014 (19) that may see a comeback in 2017, in-store beacons use proximity detectors to send customers push notifications (such as special offers) to their mobiles if they are nearby a physical shop. Brilliant as the technology is, it requires that the customer has already given a store their contact details (either by downloading the app or for some other reason) and that a customer’s Bluetooth is switched on for the proximity detectors to work.
Finally, there are Walmart’s ‘smart’ shopping carts (20) which, so the retail giant claims, will have the ability to guide customers around their shops using radar technology that eliminates the need for customers to push heavy shopping carts around.
Whether all, most, some, of any of these ideas end up taking off is impossible to predict. The rise of automated technology could mean the losses of millions of jobs, as CGP Grey predicts, or it could mean the development of millions of new jobs. The rise of e-Commerce could continue or Amazon Go may be the start of a reversal in trend. Maybe the two types of shopping will remain equals, with each sharing the market 50/50, or maybe one will emerge victorious. 2017 promises to be many things for the world of e-Commerce but the one thing it definitely won’t be is predictable.
About the author: Carl Parslow is the Managing Partner of Parslows’ Jersey office. He has 20 years of experience practicing law. Carl was initially called to the English Bar in 1996 and in 2003 he was called to the Jersey Bar as an advocate. He is an Honorary Librarian of the Law Society of Jersey and serves on several Law Society committees. Carl is extremely experienced in law relating to SME and property.