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banner Monday, 20 August, 2001, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
The war outside your door
milk bottles on a doorstep
The milk bottles on your doorstep could soon be joined by a shiny box
A battle is being fought on your doorstep, writes BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward. It's a turf war for territory that has only recently been recognised for its true strategic value.

The winners in this battle could, many believe, be pivotal in a larger war that has already claimed many casualties and caused much collateral damage.

Actually the battle is not just being waged on your doorstep, it is for your doorstep.

The larger war that this battle is part of is the one being waged by the dot.coms and more traditional companies who want you to shop at their online stores when you stroll down the virtual High Street.

The battle is for the space just outside your front door where a smart (as in both stylish and intelligent) lockable box could sit to receive all those goods and packages you are ordering over the net.

Easy shopping

The net has made it very easy to shop from the comfort of your home, and many people have become converts to the Amazon, Tesco Direct and web shopping way of life.

A Homeport box in situ
But many still believe that the true potential for web shopping is not being realised thanks to the messy reality.

The truth is that all those things you buy via the net have to be delivered to your home and few of them can fit through your letter box. Everything else has to be collected or a delivery time arranged for when you are at home to sign for the goods.

But even this is no guarantee that the delivery will be made. Earlier this year a Trading Standards Institute report revealed that almost 40% of the goods that people ordered for home delivery did not turn up at the appointed time. In 17% of cases the goods failed to turn up at all.

"One of the major barriers to the increased use of home delivery is the inconvenience of people delivering when you are not there," said James Bates, marketing director of smart box maker Bearbox.

Would you like AM or PM?

An empty house with no-one to receive goods is a big problem for the retailers too. Supermarkets like Tesco are keen to expand their home delivery services but are restricted because people are only available early morning or during the evening.

Bearbox diagram
The Bearbox
The benefits of making it easier to deliver could be lucrative. A study conducted earlier this year by Verdict Research estimated that the home delivery market will be worth 34.5bn in 2005, up from 18.9bn in 2000.

Companies like Bearbox, Dynamid and Homeport have all developed clever boxes they want to site outside your door to receive all the goods on your behalf while you are out. Once you get home you open the box, take the stuff inside and eat it or read it.

Mr Bates said that it wasn't just dot.coms that were keen to make more deliveries to the home. He said Bearbox was getting as much interest from catalogue firms and local shops.

Options, options...

The three companies are taking a slightly different approach. With Homeport everything you order is packed into a strong box in a warehouse and then delivered to your home. It is secured in place with a cable that slots into a locking device fixed to your wall. The next day the box is taken away again.

With Bearbox and Dynamid a box is permanently installed. It is fitted with a keypad lock and anyone due to deliver goods to you is given a PIN so they can open it and lock it afterwards. Mr Bates from Bearbox said it is now working on a smart lock that can be fitted to a door, shed or gate that can give delivery men access to other parts of a house.

Tesco supermarket trellis
Tesco is taking part in the Bearbox trial
All three companies are planning to charge a monthly subscription for the service and all have deals with Consignia (the Post Office as was).

The electronics in the lockable crates that Bearbox is producing are solar powered and also contain a basic mobile phone so it can tell you when something has been delivered.

James Bates, marketing director for Bearbox said it is currently extending its 50 home trial to another 150 homes and hopes next year to start a commercial service that initially recruits 5,000 users.

Minimum of fuss

But the smart boxes will not be for everyone. In many inner city areas there is limited room on doorsteps for lots of boxes. Security could be an issue in some neighbourhoods too, but some of the boxes have tamper alarms and the

Convenience stores are free, secure and already there

Andrew Day, M-Box
Homeport box is removed regularly.

"Any initiative that gets the goods to customers with a minimum of fuss and disruption is a key element of remote or home shopping," said a spokeswoman from Verdict Research. She said the secure box has "potential" but also limitations because frozen or chilled foods cannot be left inside it. Lack of space and lease restrictions could limit its take up in other places too.

Andrew Day, managing director of delivery infrastructure specialist M-Box, said there were security problems in having more than one firm putting goods in every day. But the biggest obstacle was mass market acceptance and getting the shops to sign up and delivery firms to train staff to use them.

M-Box has opted for is deals with local shops and convenience stores that can take delivery on behalf of residents. "Convenience stores are free, secure and already there," said Mr Day.

Like all good ideas the smart delivery box approach is not new. In the US at least one company has tried and failed to make it work. Now we will have to wait and see if Bearbox, Homeport and Dynamid can deliver.

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