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Amazon Files for Patent on Predictive Shipping – Starts New Service 2 Years Ago

I have in the past joked that Amazon was going to launch a shipping service that delivered your stuff the day before it was ordered, but apparently the joke was closer to the truth than I realized.

The WSJ has discovered a new patent filing from Amazon for a system that tries to predict which customers will order a product some time in the future, thus enabling Amazon to have the item in route from the closest Amazon warehouse before the order is placed:

The Seattle retailer in December gained a patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping,” a method to start delivering packages even before customers click “buy.”

The technique could cut delivery time and discourage consumers from visiting physical stores. In the patent document, Amazon says delays between ordering and receiving purchases “may dissuade customers from buying items from online merchants.”

So Amazon says it may box and ship products it expects customers in a specific area will want – based on previous orders and other factors — but haven’t yet ordered. According to the patent, the packages could wait at the shippers’ hubs or on trucks until an order arrives.

According to the patent, Amazon may fill out partial street addresses or zip codes to get items closer to where customers need them, and later complete the label in transit, the company said. For large apartment buildings, “a package without addressee information may be speculatively shipped to a physical address … having a number of tenants,” Amazon said in the patent.

Amazon said the predictive shipping method might work particularly well for a popular book or other items that customers want on the day they are released. As well, Amazon might suggest items already in transit to customers using its website to ensure they are delivered, according to the patent.

Frankly, I’m not surprised. I first read about this idea in July 2012:

On a more serious note, this patent sounds like a cool idea, but it’s not exactly new.  Companies have been anticipating their future needs for centuries. Heck, they’ve even been using computers to anticipate stock requirements for at least a couple decades. I worked retail back in the late 1990s and even the small convenience store chain I worked at used a predictive system to plan orders.

This patent is mainly a refinement of the current concept of just-in-time logistics. Rather than having a minimal amount of stock in an Amazon warehouse with more on the way from a supplier, Amazon is now going to keep a minimal amount of stock in UPS trucks and distribution centers (and probably the Amazon lockers).

Can you imagine just how many customers Amazon would have to have in order to make this practical?

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DebbyS January 17, 2014 um 9:26 pm

Odd this topic comes up. I ordered a negative-scanning device Thursday morning, Jan 16. I asked for regular shipping as free shipping, well, it could have come anytime from 1/22 to 1/29. Later that day I got a notice that my order had been placed. This was expected. This morning (1/17) I got two notices. The first said that the order had been shipped and I could expect it Tuesday, Jan 21. This was expected, too, and okay with me. A little further down in my inbox was an email that claimed that the order had been shipped — and I could expect it *today*! (Jan 17). Well, that was a surprise! When I noticed that around 1:00 that the mail carrier had arrived, I went out to greet her. I was hoping at least to get an order I made early last week with "free shipping." Yes, she had it for me. We joked about the other thing "coming today" and I expected she’d bring it to me on Tuesday.

But this evening, about 6:00, when it was already dark, there was a sharp knock on my door (I live in an apartment complex). It was UPS and they had the item I had ordered yesterday morning! I note that it came from Las Vegas, NV, and I live in Albuquerque, NM, and there is no bad weather to slow down a ground shipment. But I am amazed that it did indeed come today, less than 48 hour later, and I did not ask for such speedy shipping (I rechecked the mail notice and no unwanted charges are there).

Were they psychic and ready for me before I made the order? I have been looking at these kind of devices for several days, trying to decide which might be the best one; I do a lot of research before buying expensive things (anything around or over $100), though I was going to use two gift cards for this. So they might have kept tabs on the kind of thing I was looking at, but I had several in mind before I finally decided Thursday morning, and how would they have known? Had they set several set aside, waiting for me…?

So maybe I was another test case for their Predictive Shipping — and I don’t mind at all.

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