Innovation in last-mile delivery for B2C e-commerce

To face the logistics challenges opened by the advent of e-commerce, players operating online should leverage on innovation. Innovation is the enabler for efficient and effective solutions in a fast-changing and challenging sector, which is expected to become increasingly significant in the everyday life of all of us.


Arianna Seghezzi, Assistant Professor in Management of Logistics and Production Systems


Business to consumer (B2C) e-commerce is gaining increasing importance in many countries – in both mature and emerging markets – and online initiatives are proliferating across different industries. Globally, B2C e-commerce is a rapid pace growing phenomenon, and the online market of products in 2021 has been worth more than € 800B worldwide (B2C e-Commerce observatory, Politecnico di Milano). If compared to the offline market, B2C e-commerce opens new logistics challenges for companies, and the intangibility of online transactions must not lead to underestimate them. In particular, the most critical logistic process is the last-mile delivery, i.e., the “last stretch” of the order fulfilment, aimed at delivering the products ordered online to the final consumer.

Traditionally, last-mile deliveries are conducted by means of diesel vans performing delivery tours with a high number of customers to be reached, which entails criticalities according to different dimensions. Considering effectiveness, last-mile delivery is the interface between the merchant and the customers, who directly perceive the associated performances. Considering efficiency, it is the most expensive part of the delivery process, mainly due to the small dimension of orders to be delivered to multiple – potentially dispersed – points of destination. Finally, considering environmental sustainability, a high number of diesel vans may generate CO2 emissions and contribute to traffic congestion.

These being the premises, the academic, managerial, and policy-making communities are striving to find alternative solutions to address such challenges. In this context, innovation emerges as a promising option: the answer is developing last-mile delivery solutions that introduce novel elements, to help companies overcoming the limits of traditional deliveries (such as the inability to saturate the transport mean or the high probability of failed deliveries). These solutions may imply the use of transport means different from traditional vans, innovative algorithms optimizing the scheduling of the deliveries, or even the implementation of new logics and the involvement of new players.

  • Crowdsourcing logistics is intended as the outsourcing of last-mile delivery activities to a network of “common” people (i.e., the crowd), which give their availability to carry a parcel from a point of origin to a point of destination. They often offer this service because they have to move on a similar route for personal or working reasons.
  • Parcel lockers are boxes managed by a retailer or a logistics service provider used by different customers, usually grouped into structures located in public places (e.g., supermarkets, post offices). The allocation of one specific locker to a specific customer is not fixed, but it dynamically varies according to the issued orders and to the availability. The customers can retrieve their parcel using a one-time password, barcode or QR code.
  • In-trunk deliveries allow parcels to be delivered directly in the trunk of the customer’s car. Couriers unlock the trunk using a one-time-use digital key associated to the specific order. The real-time information about the car location is provided by a GPS system installed inside the vehicle.
  • Drones consist of unmanned aerial vehicles in which parcels are loaded, which can travel from a point of origin to a point of destination relying on the on-board GPS. Once the destination is reached, the container is dropped off. Drones then have to come back to the warehouse or to a truck that, in the meanwhile, has moved to a new destination. Here the driver changes the battery and loads the new container.
  • Robots are small-dimension self-driving road vehicles that, moving on determined and controlled paths, reach the customers, who unload the vehicle retrieving their parcels.

The solutions presented above are just a selection of multiple available options, and are very different from each other. Their characteristics and peculiarities make some alternatives more suitable for specific contexts, depending on many contextual factors (e.g., the road and viability conditions, the dimension and obsolescence of the delivered products, as well as the urgency and the required delivery speed). Nonetheless, all of them have one element in common: innovation.

E-commerce logistics is completely different from traditional logistics, and traditional solutions are not the right answer to solve novel and disruptive problems. As a result, in order to pursue sustainability (intended in its threefold configuration, i.e., economic, environmental and social) goals, e-commerce players should leverage on innovation, that is the enabler for efficient and effective solutions in a fast-changing and challenging sector, which is expected to become increasingly significant in the everyday life of all of us.

ERS European Research Seminar 2021


On June 10th and 11th Politecnico di Milano hosted the sixteenth edition of the European Research Seminar (ERS) on Logistics and Supply Chain Management (

Due to the COVID emergency, the conference was entirely held online, but this did not make it less interactive and stimulating, and it offered great opportunities for exchange.

50 professors and researchers from all over the world participated, presenting their works and providing interesting elements for discussion about the main trends in the sector of logistics and supply chain management.
Several topics were touched: innovation, technology, circular economy, economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Carl Marcus Wallenburg (WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, Germany) and Andreas Wieland (Copenhagen Business School, Denmark) were the conference co-chairs. Angela Tumino and Riccardo Mangiaracina were the local hosts of the conference, as well as members of the scientific committee. Arianna Seghezzi, Chiara Siragusa and Elena Tappia chaired some of the main sessions.

The conference closed with great satisfaction of all the participants.

Reducing the environmental impact of logistics: the GILA Project

The international project GILA, sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is designed to contribute to global efforts in reducing absolute GHG emissions from logistics and enhancing resource efficiency to thus meet the Paris Agreement’s objectives


Like all other business sectors, logistics can adopt more sustainable practices to reduce emissions and enhance resource efficiency.

The GILA project – run by a German, Italian & Latin American Consortium joined by the School of Management  – is designed to reduce the environmental impact (especially carbon impact) of logistics, focusing on sites that play a connecting role within transport chains, such as warehouses, consolidation/fulfilment centres, distribution centres, cross-docking sites or micro depots/city hubs, as well terminals at maritime or inland ports, freight and intermodal terminals or cargo terminals at airports.

In order to achieve the overall objective, two main research areas will be addressed:

  • best practices and future requirements, services and concepts for sustainable logistics sites within an energy and resource efficient transport chain
  • establishment of a methodological framework for assessing the environmental performance of logistics sites

The targeted methodological framework for assessing the environmental performance of logistics sites helps gain enhanced transparency and a robust basis for decision management and for the targeted identification and definition of measures to reduce CO2 emissions.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics is responsible for leading the project and its scientific implementation.

The industry partners are: Arcadis Germany GmbH, developer of logistics sites, P3 Logistic Parks, skilled in sustainable industrial properties and market development. GreenRouter is mainly responsible for the calculation of GHG emissions of logistics sites, while Fercam, Flexilog, Conad and Prysmian group contribute through their expertise and experience of their own logistics sites.

The School of Management of Politecnico di Milano, as academic partner, contributes with its know-how on green logistics concepts, while the Universidad de los Andes brings a Latin American perspective and experience on the environmental performance of terminals.

Sharing best practices will help participating companies to be prepared for future trends and demands within logistics networks and to pave effective pathways towards zero emissions logistics by 2050 and the sustainable transformation of the sector.

The project will enable industry to use the outcomes in future planning and the implementation projects of new investments in logistics sites infrastructure, e.g. city hub distribution, new greyfield warehouse projects or sustainable transformation of existing warehouses, transhipment sites and terminals.


Logistics sector changes resulting from Covid-19 pandemic

More than other areas, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the logistics sector to adapt quickly to the new regional, supply chains and consumer needs and test new flexible, digital and shared organisational models. The starting point for the next challenges.


Prof Marco Melacini, professor of Logistics Management, Director of the “Gino Marchet” Contract Logistics Observatory
School of Management Politecnico di Milano


The health system is at the forefront of the emergency response which work with other sectors providing essential services. Logistics, with its roots in military supply systems, provide the foundation to meet today’s challenge, ensuring these sectors’ operations by supplying necessary products. Although we are still in full emergency, it is useful to start thinking about “phase 2” and how the logistics will change, especially as it is unlikely that the country will return to normal in the medium term and there may be several “stop and go” moments, perhaps by limiting the “red zones” to smaller areas.

The best way to answer the question of how logistics will adapt, is to observe the last month’s reaction to the crisis which disrupted the lives of people and companies, and particularly the logistics of the pharmaceutical and food supply chain, which remained fully operational.

Adopting a “smart” rather than a cost-minimising strategy to handle the foreseeable demand, was seen as important. Practically this meant greater resource redundancy (firstly warehouses) to quickly locally reallocate stocks and overcome critical issues, such as stoppages. Implementing this strategy requires quicker decision-making, with increasingly dynamic and data driven choices. The smart working method was adopted for planning. This was more effective for companies that had experienced remote working and adopted cloud technologies and software. The latter allow remote access to computer systems and increase visibility along the supply chain.

However, there were some activities which must remain on site, such as order picking and transport. For these, it was essential to use social responsibility for workplace safety. Practically, this meant Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) distribution for workers, frequent workplace sanitisation (warehouses, transport cabins, and terminals or handling aids such as drugs delivery boxes), body temperature monitoring of everyone before site access, and reviewing operating procedures (e.g. to reduce the resource sharing, such as voice picking headsets, and increasing operating distances between operators). Reducing physical “contact” was a good reason to move to supply chain digitisation — making it possible to avoid printing and paper handling of transport documents.

The “smart” strategy is based on flexibility and allows quicker implementation of the most suitable solutions to respond to any change. The logistics tertiarisation and the related model used across the country enabled companies to be flexible. Some logistics operators quickly reallocated goods across more than 25,000 sqm of warehouse space. Horizontal cooperation between contract logistics operators (a sector worth more than € 84 billion in turnover) is and will be essential to a sharing economy. This cooperation consists of the use of stationary trucks/drivers from other supply chains to manage the high growth in demand especially sudden consumption peaks generated by fears in the population. It was possible to move warehouse personnel from mothballed sites making up for the reduction in operating capacity in the face of a physiological rise in absenteeism. The close relationship between company and worker, typical of the cooperative model, favoured communication within the company, reducing potential risk areas, and providing greater operational flexibility, to partially offset the inevitable productivity loss. We started daily planning, working closely with customer companies to align logistics capacity as closely as possible to market demand. This was essential to ensure economic sustainability in a low-margin environment such as contract logistics.

The situation we are experiencing led to a specific coordination model for emergencies: frequent alignment meetings, adoption of choices that in the short term do not always optimise costs (for example the greater difficulty of finding return trips or mandatory distances in the warehouse, to the detriment of productivity) but ensuring service continuity, cooperative customer company relationships that go beyond an outsourcing contract, an open book approach while sharing market signals and operational choices.

At the strategic macro-choice level, alongside the critical analysis of the future service to be provided based on contingencies (some companies have reduced the number of deliveries per point of destination to reduce order fragmentation), we noticed the centrality of delivery capacity in urban areas. This included home deliveries (e-commerce has made the definitive leap forward in its Italian development and grown by more than 50 per cent) and the individual sales point, with the rediscovery of the value of proximity stores (often used as omnichannel preparation points for urban deliveries). These urban logistics, with their city-centred origin and destination, will be increasingly important. In the transportation field there has been the development of road-rail inter-modality, which is fundamental to overcome transport blockages between EU countries, and future management of the crossing and supply of new “red zones”. Lastly, warehouse automation, which is still underdeveloped, will be increasingly important to promote work in protected areas with a lower concentration of people.


“Border” crossing times between European states (source:

In conclusion, it is not simply a matter of returning to a logistical “normality”, but finding new balances that will allow us to face this and future challenges, such as any economic recession and the need to increasingly focus on climate change.