Amazon drones: sci-fi or the future of retail?
Amazon drones: sci-fi or the future of retail?
A view from Phillip Dyte

Live in the future, they said. We'll have delivery drones, they said

Don't dismiss Amazon's drones as futuristic nonsense - this might be the next bold idea that catches retailers unawares, writes Phillip Dyte, strategy director at...

Amazon’s big move, announced this week, of partnering with the UK government to develop delivery drones still sounds a bit like the kind of thing a science fiction writer would scribble down in the margins of a book plan: futuristic, vaguely possible-sounding, but self-evidently impractical.

It makes me do the sort of mental squint I imagine my mum experiencing when I show her the apparently magic camera translation from Google. How is it supposed to work? What about hackers, or trees, or high winds, or people who live in flats, or aggressively territorial magpies? And there will be horror stories, because there are always horror stories.

But they’re smart people at Amazon. There will certainly be no question I can come up with that they haven’t thought of, and they likely have answers for the majority of them.

Do people want drones? Maybe, possibly, yes

Ironically, the one they might be least sure about is the most obvious: will people want to use delivery drones in the first place? I expect they have research, but the reality of it is still likely to cause a stir.

I’m sure there are doubters even within the company. And yet Amazon has a habit of redefining what is normal for retail: critics thought that Prime Now, which delivers within one hour, was just unnecessary – but only a year or so on from launch, Cowen & Co reckons it already has 25% penetration among Amazon users in areas of the US in which it is available.

That’s… quite impressive. Automated air delivery within 30 minutes of ordering turns the whole thing up to 11 – and it does make sense that Amazon would be the ones to do it. 

So they may well be right about all this. They’ve already proved once that shoppers want a faster service than ever before. Indeed, perhaps John Lewis’ portrait of the "master shopper" is already out of date. Perhaps customers really won’t blink at the idea of their Caesar salad ingredients soaring through the air in the grip of a flying robotic lobster – so long as they can have it now, now, now.

Controlling the path to the consumer

The benefits for Amazon, of course, are clear: more "moat", hard-to-cross distance between themselves and everyone else.

More automation, which they can operate more easily and at greater scale than a traditional logistics network.

And more "platform", which is something that Amazon as a company has been circling for a while.

Consider Dash, their Internet of Things platform and something that one observer drily noted is "an unabashed attempt to disconnect customers from the amount of money we're spending".

Debates on caveat emptor aside, as online retail in general takes over, and groceries in particular gradually realigns into what increasingly looks like a subscription-and-sensor based model, Amazon stands out as one of the few entities that can offer advertisers a way in to the purchase path of the future. 

It’s going to be quite a ride; dynamically processing signals from devices and supply networks is a bit of a step on from Excel plans and PowerPoint.

Advertisers may find themselves building algorithms of their own (if Amazon won’t do it for them), taking in huge spiderwebs of whatever information this delivery network might supply and automatically activating messages against it. That was always the future, though, wasn’t it?

An evolution to shopping as an experience

And what does this all mean for physical retail? It seems like they will be forced to wait and see.

Few high street retailers could afford to pursue drones in the way Amazon is, as a theoretical and likely expensive moonshot.

If the technology does reach critical mass then, once again, these brands will need to catch up.

But it’s not all bad – stores need to evolve beyond "boxes of stuff" because the internet does that better than they do, but there’s actually a very optimistic scenario wherein experience-oriented shopping (which is already kind of happening) can be directly connected to instant home delivery.

I think there could be a lot of interest in the ability to buy, say, a pair of shoes in-store with the press of a button and have them flown back to your house to be waiting there on your return the very same day.

And again, for brands that frees up the idea of using physical space less for stock and more for immersive build and messaging.

With that said, this still all feels very far away. We won’t need to start looking at revising floor plans just yet, nor trying to design new programmatic systems to distribute advertising according to drone air traffic. There will be lots of obstacles for Amazon, and anyone else trying this, to overcome. 

But then, that’s the thing about technology – it tends to happen slowly, then all at once.