Grocery delivery service is greener than driving to the store

April 29, 2013
This diagram shows how a delivery truck can save on mileage when compared with personal vehicles driving to and from a store. Credit: Goodchild/Wygonik, UW

At the end of a long day, it can be more convenient to order your groceries online while sitting on the living room couch instead of making a late-night run to the store. New research shows it's also much more environmentally friendly to leave the car parked and opt for groceries delivered to your doorstep.

University of Washington engineers have found that using a grocery delivery service can cut emissions by at least half when compared with individual household trips to the store. Trucks filled to capacity that deliver to customers clustered in neighborhoods produced the most savings in .

"A lot of times people think they have to inconvenience themselves to be greener, and that actually isn't the case here," said Anne Goodchild, UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "From an environmental perspective, grocery delivery services overwhelmingly can provide emissions reductions."

Consumers have increasingly more grocery delivery services to choose from. AmazonFresh operates in the Seattle area, while Safeway's service is offered in many U.S. cities. FreshDirect delivers to residences and offices in the New York City area. Last month, unveiled a shopping delivery service experiment in the , and UW alumni recently launched the grocery service Geniusdelivery in Seattle.

As companies continue to weigh the costs and benefits of offering a delivery service, Goodchild and Erica Wygonik, a UW doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering, looked at whether using a grocery delivery service was better for the environment, with Seattle as a test case. In their analysis, they found delivery service trucks produced 20 to 75 percent less carbon dioxide than the corresponding personal vehicles driven to and from a grocery store.

They also discovered significant savings for companies – 80 to 90 percent less carbon dioxide emitted – if they delivered based on routes that clustered customers together, instead of catering to individual household requests for specific delivery times.

"What's good for the bottom line of the delivery service provider is generally going to be good for the environment, because fuel is such a big contributor to operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions," Wygonik said. "Saving fuel saves money, which also saves on emissions."

The research was funded by the Oregon Department of Transportation and published in the Journal of the Transportation Research Forum.

This is a comparison of carbon dioxide produced per customer for personal vehicles and delivery vehicles. The bars on the left represent a system in which customers choose their delivery times. The right side shows a more efficient system whereby the delivery service sets delivery times. Credit: Goodchild/Wygonik, UW

The UW researchers compiled Seattle and King County data, assuming that every household was a possible delivery-service customer. Then, they randomly drew a portion of those households from that data to identify customers and assign them to their closest grocery store. This allowed them to reach across the entire city, without bias toward factors such as demographics and income level.

They used an Environmental Protection Agency modeling tool to calculate emissions at a much more detailed level than previous studies have done. Using factors such as vehicle type, speed and roadway type, they calculated the carbon dioxide produced for every mile for every vehicle.

Emissions reductions were seen across both the densest parts and more suburban areas of Seattle. This suggests that grocery delivery in rural areas could lower carbon dioxide production quite dramatically.

"We tend to think of grocery delivery services as benefiting urban areas, but they have really significant potential to offset the environmental impacts of personal shopping in rural areas as well," Wygonik said.

Work commuters are offered a number of incentives to reduce traffic on the roads through discounted transit fares, vanpools and carpooling options. Given the emissions reductions possible through grocery delivery services, the research raises the question of whether government or industry leaders should consider incentives for consumers to order their groceries online and save on trips to the store, Goodchild said.

In the future, Goodchild and Wygonik plan to look at the influence of customers combining their grocery shopping with a work commute trip and the impact of the delivery service's home-base location on emissions.

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not rated yet Apr 29, 2013
Do most people really make these singular trips to the store? Or do most people just pick up groceries on their way back from work?

Generally, I think such a delivery would be a good idea. However not being able to choose the time of delivery could be a knock-out criterium for many.
1 / 5 (6) Apr 29, 2013
The optimum, of course would be that you can choose the delivery time for a premium price, or else let the store choose it.

There are a lot of alternatives between these. For example, there could be an "early afternoon" group, a late afternoon group, etc. so that you can approximately choose the time. And of course, the delivery car computer could text you a half hour before estimated arrival.

But the one thing that really makes a difference here is how easy it is to do your virtual shopping. Nobody wants to wade through page after page and deep menus and too many alternatives. It has to be quick, efficient and easy.

That requires good defaults for most things. If you choose just Tomatoes, they should send you average price tomatoes of good quality. Only if you really want a specific kind of tomatoes should you need to do more clicking.
not rated yet Apr 29, 2013
That requires good defaults for most things.

Just go through it once and set a cookie with your favorite (and possibly your last) selection. Much like Amazon does it.

The issue is whether the total savings in fuel will translate to savings for the customer to making their own trip to the store. The delivery service has to
a) payfor its fuel (added charge to customer)
b) pay for the driver (dded charge to customer)
c) pay for the upkeep of the fleet of vehicles (added charge to customer)

Any business will not just pass the cost on through to the customer but add a profit margin.
If you add all this in the savings to the customer may be eaten up.
(Add to that that you don't get to choose between the fresh looking stuff and the gunk next to it)
1 / 5 (6) Apr 29, 2013
I hope that most services eventually double-up their efficiency and start using electric delivery trucks.

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