How 4G and Wi-Fi are helping Doddle expand to 1,000 stores in 2017

Last mile parcel delivery service leverages partners and smarter data transfers

Doddle is relying on Wi-Fi and 4G to grow its click-and-collect centres by tenfold around the UK, targeting close to 1,000 outlets by the end of 2017.

The brainchild of CEO Tim Robinson, Doddle launched as a joint venture of Network Rail and investor Lloyd Dorfman in 2014, setting up in railway stations' newly-converted shop units to let commuters collect parcels on their way home.

But these converted shop units were often across the concourse from Network Rail's datalines, presenting a problem for Doddle, whose operating model relies on being able to swap lots of package-related data with retail partners like Amazon and Marks & Spencer every day.

Either the company was at the mercy of Openreach's nebulous timescales to install a fresh line, or it faced a time-consuming search for an engineer capable of cabling from the existing dataline to Doddle's shop.

"We would get to the point where we were ready to open the store but were waiting on the dataline," admits Doddle CTO, Gary O'Connor.

For a while Doddle looked at paying for both an Ethernet networking device and a DSL (digital subscriber line) connection for failover, which was crucial "because if you lost the connection, you've pretty much lost the store capability", O'Connor explains.

However, the approach would have resulted in a significant data bill, and Doddle decided to explore what other options it had.

Finding the right partner

O'Connor and his colleagues started looking for alternatives in January 2016, considering Cisco and Juniper devices, among others, but never finding anything that quite fit their needs.

Over summer, O'Connor started looking at Cradlepoint, a cloud-based networking tool that offered DSL, Ethernet and Wi-Fi all from one connection. It coincided with Doddle agreeing to set up collection points in Cancer Research UK's high street stores, which lacked any built-in data connections.

Nevertheless, "there was a requirement to get up and running quickly without having that rack of host services in place", explains O'Connor.

Consequently, Doddle opted for Cradlepoint's AER1600 network tool, which offers multi-WAN and VPN support, along with DSL, Ethernet, 4G and WiFi in a device that the firm can remote manage via Cradlepoint's NetCloud platform.

"Without a Cradlepoint-type device we could never have opened those stores," says O'Connor. "With Cradlepoint we could run the entire thing off 4G, it meant we could do something we couldn't have done without that capability."

Cradlepoint also saved Doddle 50% of the capex and opex costs of its previous reliance on separate Ethernet and DSL devices when it replaced those legacy systems in 50 stores, partly because it allows Doddle to remotely fix any issues, rather than paying for an engineer to attend onsite.

With the Cradlepoint tool, Doddle generally relies on broadband and fails to 4G, but if a store lacks certain connectivity, it can operate on 4G or even Wi-Fi.

"It gives us flexibility," says O'Connor. That flexibility is key for Doddle's constant flow of data; notifying customers when their parcels are ready for collection, notifying retailers when customers pick up their packages, or when a package is returned. An outage disrupting this steady stream of communication could damage Doddle's reputation with retailers and customers.

Gary O'Connor, Doddle CTO

Growing to 1,000 stores

The ability to transfer data instantly, wherever a store is, means Doddle can open a new location in as little as a few hours, something that's essential to Doddle's growth plans as it expands from 84 outlets (half of which now rely on Cradlepoint) to nearly 1,000 over 2017, through its store partnerships with Cancer Research UK, Morrisons and B&Q.

"We've established the model and we believe there's demand for the service," states O'Connor. "We're very keen to become relevant to the rest of the population in the UK. We've got a strong base in London, we've got a base in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. But if you live outside of some of those major urban areas we're probably not massively relevant as a brand."

Being able to set up shops quickly, and troubleshoot issues remotely, is crucial for Doddle, whose IT team comprises 16 people.

"We're trying to minimise the amount of time that the team spends on keeping the lights on, so we can focus that time on the things that allow us to grow as an organisation," O'Connor says.

To that end, Cradlepoint and other partners take the weight off the IT team for deploying and maintaining stores, so it can focus on improving the customer experience.

"In a lot of areas people are trying to keep humans' attention for longer and do more things with them," says O'Connor. "In our world transactions tend to work best when we execute it as quickly and smoothly as possible."

Making the customer journey smoother

Partners like Cradlepoint are enabling O'Connor and his colleagues to devote more attention to improving the customer experience.

"Things we're focusing on are how we can push parts of the process outside of the physical connection you have in the store, such that we can optimise that transaction," he explains.

Examples include allowing customers to remotely select the parcels they wish to pick up, so the packages are waiting for them when they walk into the store, and how Doddle can make it easier to return parcels.

O'Connor adds: "There's a lot of noise in the marketplace at the moment around artificial intelligence, so what place does that have in customer service? One of the core interactions people have with us is 'where is my parcel', so how could we make that a more responsive and simpler flow?"

All images: Doddle

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