More and more is ordered online. A shop without an online presence hardly matters anymore nowadays. However, the market for fresh products is falling behind in this trend despite efforts from, among others, retailers in this field. Besides the arguments about consumers preferring to choose their own fresh products, transport was a bottleneck. Especially for smaller parties. In 2014, PostNL started delivering fresh products. The postal company sees opportunities for delivering fresh packages.
“As PostNL we want to be the logistical enabler behind the online food market,” says Daan Koek, manager Online Food for PostNL. “When you offer a good solution and the right service, every supplier of food can sell via the internet. I think we as PostNL can contribute to that.” The postal company has as its advantage that the logistical network with international coverage already exists. The processes for the transport of fresh and frozen products were set up separately.
In cooperation with the Wageningen University, PostNL developed a cooler. “We use the cooler as means of transporting the products,” says Daan. The PostNL cooler can be used within the postal company’s processes. In July, PostNL expanded its network and started delivering fresh products in Belgium. Besides meal boxes from Marley Spoon, orders via the online shops of Ekoplaza and Carrefour are also delivered to Belgian doorsteps by PostNL. By now, the company delivers for more than 40 food suppliers, including the products of The Greenery and Dutch supermarket chain Hoogvliet.
The logistical process is practically comparable to the process of every other postal package. The supplier packs the products in the PostNL cooler and seals it. “We have a fresh guarantee because of that,” Daan explains. “They put on a shipping label so that we know where it should be delivered, and that we can scan for more information.” The coolers have to be present at PostNL before 12 o’clock. The boxes are then sorted and distributed over five hubs throughout the Netherlands. From these logistic centres, the packages are daily brought to consumers’ doorsteps the same evening. The seal is only broken at the moment of delivery. Because of that, the seal works as a guarantee for food safety.
The Online Food department is a separate department within PostNL that works on the delivery of these packages. “It’s a truly dedicated network just for food. Only food goes through the sorting. When the cars leave, they only carry food, and the drivers have been especially selected and trained,” according to Daan.
First kilometre is decisive
While it is often said that the final kilometre has the highest costs in the logistical chain, it’s the ‘first kilometre’ that’s decisive for the coolers. “It doesn’t matter how many boxes a supplier wants to supply,” Daan explains. “You have to keep in mind that when a supplier wants to supply one box per day, the costs of the supplier to our delivery location can be quite high.” For the distribution from that hub, the number of packages has no influence. “You need a bit of volume to be profitable,” Daan continues. “But we don’t have a lower limit for a minimum amount of coolers. We also have a food consultant on our team, who goes with the sales employees to help set up concepts for our customers. And because we also learn from our customers, I prefer to call them partners.”
Suppliers receive a list of packing instructions with their PostNL coolers. In cooperation with the Wageningen University, for example, a table was developed to decide how many cooling elements had to be placed in the cooler to guarantee freshness. “Three variables can influence temperatures in the coolers,” Daan explains. The first is the product itself, and the temperature of the product. The second is cooling mass, or the number of cooling elements in the cooler. The third is outside temperature. The model developed by PostNL gives instructions to guarantee the freshness of the products, but in the end, the supplier is responsible for the products.
Temperature and breakage
“Temperature is very important, but so is preventing breakages,” Daan acknowledges. “You don’t want strawberries to be squashed during transport.” Tips have also been giving to this end with the packing instructions. “It’s partially the supplier’s handiness to pack the cooler, but we also trained our drivers to be careful with the shipment.” Besides, the cooler has been developed in such a way that it protects the product and absorbs shocks in transit, for instance.
The development of coolers hasn’t stopped. Improvements are constantly looked for within the team. For example, partitions were recently developed so that suppliers can separate the products better. It’s possible to pack the frozen products in the same box as fresh products. “It adds a bit of complexity when packing, because it’s more difficult to guarantee temperature.”
Positive experience important
A final dilemma that plays its part in the delivery of fresh packages is what to do when a recipient isn’t at home? Leaving the package at the post office isn’t an option, in any case. “Recipients can leave a comment, so when they’re not at home, they can give an address where it can then be delivered,” Daan says. Furthermore, the time of delivery is carefully communicated to the recipient. The day before delivery, we give a time slot of an hour, in which the product will be delivered the next day. On the actual day, we give a more accurate time slot of 30 minutes in which the deliverer will deliver the package in the evening.
Should it happen that no one is home, the deliverer will first try to leave the package with the neighbours, or the recipient is called to agree to a different time of delivery. At worst, the package will be returned to the hub, where it will be placed in a cooling cell before delivery the next day. “More than 99.5 per cent of our food shipments are therefore delivered on the day itself.”
Daan feels optimistic about the online market. “We as PostNL want to be the best player in food distribution in the Netherlands and Belgium,” he describes his ambition. He’s also positive about the future of online fresh sales: “It’s often said that people want to feel and touch fresh products, but supermarkets sell more fresh products online than in physical shops,” he concludes. “Once consumers experience what it’s like to order online, they’ll sooner do it again. In the end, the product is fresher because we can shorten the supply chain.”