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Dollars & Sense

E-Commerce and Transportation: How Much Has it Improved Things?

By Jason McGlone
Posted Nov 14th 2010 2:14AM
My typical approach with these pieces involves a bit of research, a bit of opinion, and sometimes asking the members of the EO forums their thoughts about a particular topic so that I can incorporate those into the piece in question.  This time, I thought I’d take a different road--mostly because of the breadth of the topic and its somewhat nebulous nature as it relates to trucking.  

E-Commerce, generally speaking, has come to be nearly ubiquitous in terms of how we, as a people, buy in the United States (and the “civilized” world, for that matter).  This has had an undeniable effect on how we experience just about everything, on a raw commercial level.  On one hand, as consumers, the chances that we’re handling the actual object we buy, and if we are, how much we’re handling it, have gone down over the last decade by virtual orders of magnitude.  On the same token, we’ve come to learn more about the products themselves and the experience we’re likely to have via review sites and features like Yelp, Amazon, Buy.com, et al.  

Another feature (or byproduct, if you choose to call it that) of e-commerce has been a more detached, less personal buying--and selling--experience.  This is, in some ways, by design--clicking a button to make a purchase increases the level of convenience to the consumer and also removes the “personal touch” that many businesses depended upon for survival once upon a time; e-commerce, with all its possibilities, still represents only one thing at its core: another avenue of consumerism.  

This, of course, isn’t to say that with e-commerce doesn’t come additional opportunity.  There have been scads of new opportunities on the web, as well as new delivery methods in terms of buyers receiving their goods.  This represents, on one hand, a general expansion of the economy--though it’s not quite as exponential as optimists might have hoped at the outset of e-commerce’s emergence, obviously.  On the other hand, there have been significant expansions and changes with respect to how businesses deal with vendors and other businesses.  

This applies not only to how businesses purchase goods and services from their vendors, but also how they communicate with them, how they communicate within their company, how invoices and billing is conducted, how the books are kept, and so on.  The point is this: opportunities exist for the Internet to pervade all areas of a business, and the actual trading aspect of business is only one facet.  

Another vital aspect of e-commerce’s contribution here is that you’re looking at additional opportunities with respect to job creation.  This is a reasonably broad statement, but there have been job additions across numerous industries as a result of e-commerce.  The most obvious of these lie within the confines of the IT world, but there have been undeniable additions to multiple shipping companies as a result of purchases via the Internet.  With a focus on consumer purchases, one might direct their attention primarily toward the larger shipping companies like a UPS, a USPS, or a FedEx or DHL.  That’s where the shipping industry comes into this equation.  

To be sure, larger shipping companies have done a great job of adjusting to whatever expansion there’s been as a result of e-commerce being a new(er) force over the last fifteen years, give or take, but what about the smaller companies?  They tend not to be as widely used as the larger guys, and their reach isn’t nearly as ubiquitous.  And what about business-to-business transactions?  That whole world seems to be almost outside that referential scope.  

And beyond that: what about expediting?  To be sure, e-commerce has touched the expediting world in some ways, but I’m not certain it’s necessarily changed the face of the industry to any dramatic degree.  Sure, some things have changed here and there with respect to the application of computers and the Internet to some aspects of the job for drivers and definitely for those folks on the administrative end at the carrier offices, but what about e-commerce specifically?  Have you seen changes to expediting as a direct result of e-commerce--that is, buying and selling directly online--and has that actually directly contributed to an increase in volumes over the last decade and a half?  

Certainly drivers, owner/operators, fleet owners, and carriers will differ to the tune of a broad spectrum of answers on the topic.  I’m interested, though, to see how everyone thinks it’s contributed, if in any significant way. 

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