If you buy toilet paper online—or shoes or shampoo or groceries—it's probably partly because of lack of time to shop in person. That convenience comes with a few obvious challenges, like undercutting local businesses and adding to the massive carbon footprint of delivery. So a German startup is testing a new model: An online shop that only features local stores, and offers same-day delivery by cargo bike.
"It all started a year ago, when we saw the piles of packages that employees had ordered online and that they had delivered to the agency," says Nanna Beyer, who led the project for the local design firm Scholz & Volkmer. "It's all very convenient. But if you look behind that there are some things going wrong."
A book ordered online might come from hundreds of miles away, for example, even when a publisher happens to be around the corner. "There's an armada of trucks on the German roads delivering all of that stuff," Beyer says. "Even more, 800,000 packages are returned—daily. That's around 400 tons of CO2. Not including the waste of packaging."
In the design firm's new model, dubbed "Kizekaufhaus," (roughly translated as "mall of the hood") local stores join in a cooperative, each owning equal shares of the new online platform. The agency—which created the project on the side as a way to contribute to the community—also earns 10% of sales. With only 40 orders a day, they say the platform can break even.
For consumers, it's a chance to keep the small businesses that they love afloat, and keep proceeds from sales tax in the community. "We all know the feeling of frustration if another of our beloved shops closes down," Beyer says. "Our cities more and more look the same, plastered with the same stores of the same brands. A single store cannot afford to join the digital age and set up city logistics to compete. But a network of stores can. That's what Kiezkaufhaus is."
The site is "closed" on weekends to encourage people to shop at local stores in person when they have the time. It offers books, gifts, coffee, wine, and other groceries, and plans to add clothing, shoes, and other products in the future. The prices, the designers say, can stay competitive. "If we get the logistics right, we believe there's even more variety and fair prices in local online shopping than in 'big retail'," says Beyer.
While websites like AmazonFresh and Google Shopping Express are also working with some local stores in certain cities, this project has the advantage of both supporting smaller players and taking delivery trucks off the road. It's a little bit like Postmates, the U.S.-based local delivery service, though Postmates uses a mix of bikes, cars, and scooters.
In the German model, each order is delivered on a cargo bike by a local senior citizen. "They love to ride bikes, it's healthy," she says. "Then, we wanted to integrate them in society in a way that gives them a vital role. At Kiezkaufhaus, they are the central interface to the customer. They deliver to your doorstep. The cargo bikes are real eye candy if you see them riding in the streets. Heads turn. It's kind of cool that seniors drive them, not the typical digital native hipster."
The model could easily move to other cities. Wiesbaden, where it's being tested now, was actually a somewhat unlikely choice. It was voted least bike-friendly of all cities in Germany, it isn't known for innovation, and it's conservative. "If it works in Wiesbaden, it will probably work in every city," says Beyer.