Everyone is a customer at some point, so it’s a problem everyone knows about. After buying an item that’s either too heavy or too large to safely transport home, customers are left to contend with a company’s shipping department or a nameless third-party service. Then there’s a lack of information about what time or even what day it will arrive, throwing schedules into disarray.
Almost two decades into the 21st century, delivery still seems like something from the 1940s. But it is finally being reinvented, thanks to an innovative venture called Dolly — the brainchild of four frustrated consumers from Chicago, none of whom had backgrounds in logistics or retailing.
In 2014, Mike Howell and three friends held a brainstorming session about why, in the digital age, delivery continued to be such a bad experience so often.
“We wondered what it would be like if the delivery experience were reimagined, and how it would benefit the consumer if you were to optimize for exactly what she or he wanted at every stage of the transaction,” Howell says. What began as a local Chicago startup now has a presence in seven major markets, nearly 30 full-time employees and hundreds of localized drivers.
The founders’ move to rewrite the delivery playbook took a page from ride-sharing services like Uber, partnering with local drivers (known as “helpers”) in a point-to-point system.
“Underneath the hood, Dolly is a marketplace that brings together people who have local moving and delivery needs with local truck owners who want to use their vehicles to service those needs,” Howell says.
Dolly eliminates much of traditional delivery’s cumbersome infrastructure in favor of a direct “store to individual customer” concept so the helper can provide a much narrower delivery window to the customer.
Drivers are third-party independent contractors with varied hours of availability who work with Dolly on an as-needed basis using their own vehicles.
“This gives us a highly flexible local supply based that we can expand and contract as needed,” Howell says, which provides a significant cost savings over traditional delivery services.
While Dolly moves items for parties other than retailers, delivering newly sold goods from a store or warehouse accounts for a substantial portion of its volume. From its 2014 launch in the greater Chicago area, the company has expanded to six additional markets: Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Diego and Seattle, its current base of operations.
The Dolly model eliminates much of traditional delivery’s cumbersome infrastructure in favor of a direct “store to individual customer” concept so the helper can provide a much narrower delivery window to the customer.
Perhaps more importantly, it allows the customer to receive same-day or next day delivery on large items such as appliances or furniture — things that more traditional methods might take days or weeks to accomplish.
“Expectations are now higher than ever before,” Howell says. Customers “want delivery times that are tailored to their schedules, not that of the carrier.”
Consumers can access a Dolly delivery in several ways. With some retailers, merchandise displays hang tags promoting the service, directing customers to the Dolly app. Others might offer in-store kiosks where customers can book the service, while still others may offer it at the point of sale and be directly involved with the process.
Regardless of the method used, the customer will always be made aware of the price from Dolly for the delivery, calculated based on the size of the item and the distance to be traveled.
“We’ve built a suite of ways to integrate with partners based on the kind of experience they want to create for their customers,” Howell says.
Customers can book a 30-minute delivery window with as little as 90 minutes notice. Logistical details, such as where the Dolly helper picks up the item (store or fulfillment center), are worked out between merchant and driver.
“By offering ‘muscle and a truck,’ Dolly is fulfilling Lowe’s aim of giving more power to the consumer while controlling costs.”
— Randy Webster, Lowe’s
When a driver arrives at the store to pick up the item for delivery, they show the customer’s receipt on their smartphone, the item is loaded and off they go. Once en route, customers can engage in two-way communication with drivers by phone or text and know the location of the vehicle in real time through GPS on the Dolly app.
‘Muscle and a truck’
The company gauges its performance through a “net promoter score,” an online statistical tool that predicts a customer’s likelihood to tell others about their experience. Howell says Dolly’s continued high scores build business between Dolly’s retail and non-retail work such as apartment moves, Craigslist pickups and deliveries, and donation drop-offs.
Major retailers that have worked with Dolly include local merchants as well as national names like Crate and Barrel, Costco and Lowe’s. Lowe’s is currently piloting Dolly as a potential partner at some 20 stores near Seattle and Chicago.
Qualifying to work with Lowe’s was no small accomplishment.
“We receive frequent requests from prospective delivery partners,” says Randy Webster, director of fleet and delivery for Lowe’s. “We decided to test out Dolly because they align with our core values — helping people love where they live. By offering ‘muscle and a truck,’ Dolly is fulfilling Lowe’s aim of giving more power to the consumer while controlling costs.”
For Lowe’s, Dolly fills an important niche. The store offers free traditional delivery on purchases of large merchandise over $400, typically appliances, but that might involve a two- or three-day wait. Dolly has proven its usefulness with potentially time-sensitive items such as hot water heaters. Webster is quick to point that in almost two years, not a single problem or complaint has arisen from a Dolly delivery.
Prior to working with Lowe’s, Dolly had little experience with retail delivery, and was therefore realistic and methodical about entering the market. This measured approach earned admiration from Lowe’s.
“They were looking to expand, but they didn’t want to do it fast — they wanted to do it right,” Webster says. “They’ve grown, but not as fast as they could, and have thus kept the experience pure.”
Detroit-based Paul Vachon writes for various trade publications, in addition to feature stories for consumer magazines and books on Michigan history and travel.