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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 12:35 GMT
Can M-Box deliver the goods?
M-box badge BBC
Look for delivery men wearing the M-Box badge
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

M-Box is an elephant. An Indian elephant in fact.

Or so says Geoff Webb, chief executive of the net-based delivery company.

The analogy makes sense if you know that Indian elephants carry an embryo for 22 months before giving birth - the longest of any mammal.

So M-Box is an elephant as it has been so long in gestation.

Mr Webb says it is an example of Elephas maximus because he and his colleagues have been preparing the technology, alliances, and infrastructure that are M-Box for so long. The gestation has taken an age, hence his description. But now they are ready to launch.

But if M-Box is an Indian elephant then it is one the like of which you have never seen before. It is both a virtual and physical creature, a nimble-footed and knowledgeable animal that looks different depending on how you approach it.

Parcel farce

As many dot.com retailers are finding out to their cost, the tricky part of selling via the net is not setting up the website. The hard part is the logistics of getting the goods to people when they want them. Even harder is getting unwanted goods back to the warehouse.

Billions have been spent by dot.coms setting up nation-wide and international delivery systems that will transport their goods to people.

Even traditional retailers that do an exemplary job of keeping the shelves in their shops fully stocked have hit problems when they realise they start delivering a few items to millions of homes rather than transporting truckloads to just a few hundred stores.

"Most retailers are very good at managing upstream logistics," said Mr Webb, "but none of them were put on the planet to serve the Mrs Jones' of this world."

Middle man

What both the pure dot.coms and the traditional retailers need is someone sitting in the middle who will handle all of the delivery hassles on their behalf.

Someone like M-Box perhaps, at least that's what Mr Webb is hoping. The gestation period for M-Box has been lengthy because of the time it has taken to set up an international network of warehouses, call centres and delivery firms to support almost any business that wants to get goods ordered via the web to its customers.

M-Box has alliances with Express Dairies to use its fleet of milk floats to do deliveries, it also has links with Parcelforce and courier company Addison Lee to do the same.

Beyond that is a fearsomely complicated computer system that keeps track of what is flowing through the M-Box system so that your CDs, shoes or books turn up when you are expecting them.

Currently anyone signing up with M-Box can let customers order any one of six ways and have goods delivered to them any one of four.

The age of experience

For a business that uses new media the company has a lot of experience to draw on. The average age of the employees is 41, Mr Webb calls them "hairy-arsed practitioners" as a way of describing the years they have put in running supply and logistics chains for the biggest of businesses.

By calling on this expertise and making good use of technology Mr Webb believes M-Box can do the job of delivering to customers for roughly half the money it costs anyone else.

For the companies using M-Box this might mean they can dispense with delivery charges completely or only charge when folk want something quickly. Mr Webb expects most people to pay nothing as long as they know when something is arriving. "Customers do not want instant or two 2 hour delivery," says Mr Webb, "they want certainty."

He's hoping that M-Box can give them that and the name of the company will become a badge of quality that people look for. His ambition is to be a trusted name for between 7-10 million people.

With everything else in place 2001 is going to be a busy year for the company. All that remains to be seen now is whether M-Box can deliver.

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27 Jul 00 | Business
Online shopping gets more convenient
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