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| On Track & On Target | Network Rail's Doddle gears up for roll-out
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17 July 2014

Network Rail's Doddle gears up for roll-out


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The Doddle home shopping pickup point network was about to be opened to the public around about the time when this issue of F&E was in preparation. This is Network Rail’s new drop-off system for handling home shopping deliveries, which are despatched to dedicated shops in station premises, and can be collected at a time to suit the recipient. It can also handle returns.

The system has been trialled with 3,500 of Network Rail’s head-office employees at Milton Keynes, and with another 2,500 staff from Santander’s head office nearby. Reportedly the initial response was very positive.

Chief executive Peter Louden says research indicates that users would rather collect from an outlet at their home station than use one near their place of work (by a factor of four to one). That’s why early locations are in popular commuter territory such as Milton Keynes and Woking.

F&E was taken to see the flagship outlet at Milton Keynes, and there’s no denying that it’s impressive. The store is spacious and immaculate, and the prevalent purple colour scheme is repeated throughout, maintaining a very strong brand image.

Perhaps even more striking is the high-tech nature of the collection process. Consumers don’t just stroll up to the counter and request their item, they first log in at a wall-mounted terminal like a ticket machine; then their name is displayed high up on the wall on an electronic screen, indicating when their item will be ready Finally they present their credentials at the counter to a human attendant, who hands the item over.

There are further identity checks at this point; nothing is left to chance. However, Louden says it will be up to individual participating retailers to decide just how far to take the verification process. "We don’t want to make identification an obstacle to use, we just want to reassure retailers that we can make things as secure as they require."

Behind the scenes, there’s a storage area filled with gleaming racks with individual slots of different sizes. The company is still deciding on the right configuration for these. Even the parcel receipt process is quite high-tech; the delivery driver has to be buzzed in, and only gets as far as a delivery counter, not right into the storage space.

Louden admits that not all outlets will be as large or imposing as this one, but reckons it’s a good template for the network as a whole. "Once we get prospective retail customers here, their eyes light up. Immediately they see the point."

The system is geared up for high throughput, and Peter Louden makes it clear that this is what the company is seeking. "To make this idea work, we need to be a major player," he says. "We need to be handling millions of transactions."

Whilst this year the network is likely to be limited to the South East, in the long run Network Rail plans to roll it out nationwide. "In theory we have hundreds of locations to look at," Louden says. In practice the organisation is already surveying 170 of them, with a view to creating outlets in the best one hundred of these.

Louden emphasises that Doddle outlets will not displace existing retail activity in station environments, but will augment it. Often this will involve utilising existing buildings, but the organisation is not averse to putting up modular buildings where space is available – for instance, under arches or on otherwise dead ground within station confines. It already has a modular design ready.

Every pickup network developer has had to contend with the same challenge of persuading retailers to integrate it into their online checkout screens, and Peter Louden does not make light of this. "Some retailers have told us they’ll participate when we have at least twenty outlets," he says, adding: "That would mean we had access to several million consumers."

Unlike most such networks, this one will be carrier-agnostic, so integration with carriers is an additional target, and Louden says half a dozen carriers have already indicated significant interest in making use of the system. It is also talking to carrier selection specialist MetaPack about becoming an offer among its other carrier partners, "even though we’re not a carrier ourselves, but a ‘fragment’ of a carrier," as Louden puts it.

Finally, the organisation will offer a "do-it-yourself" option under which consumers can set up their own iDoddle account. When making online purchases, they will be able to nominate a Doddle outlet as their delivery address.

It is not clear exactly how the pricing will work for all these options, but Louden says some potential user-companies have already indicated they will pay a reasonable price simply for the improved delivery performance.

We couldn’t resist asking the almost inevitable question: could Doddle eventually migrate to the high street? Louden gives an unabashed affirmative. "The brand is deliberately not rail-dependent, and we’ve already identified suitable locations such as university campuses and shopping malls."

Given that Network Rail is working on Doddle with a commercial partner, Travelex Group founder Lloyd Dorfman CBE, it already has this angle covered, providing Dorfman can be convinced it’s all going to pay off. On the present showing, there seems no reason why it shouldn’t. 

 

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