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Claim to Fame #2

August 17, 1999

Inventors Devise New Mailboxes

For Bulky E-Commerce Packages



    Cathy Foley is typical of the e-commerce target market, but she is also a prime example of its biggest challenge.

    She is an affluent suburbanite, a busy mother of three and already among the relatively small but growing number of Americans who order groceries online. "It saves me hours of precious time," she says, as a deliveryman from Scotty's Home Market unpacks a $133 purchaae in her kitchen in Lake Forest, Ill.

    But she -- and millions of other Americans who buy everything from books to organic zucchini on burgeoning Web sites -- doesn't have a mailbox that measures up to technologically advanced buying habits.

    Needs to Satisfy

    That would be a computerized box (or "home-delivery portal") -- one able to remember who delivered and when, one wired into your home-security system to deter thieves, refrigerated to protect perishables and heated to keep croissants and cappuccino at serving temperature. It might be hidden underground and pop up only on signal from a delivery driver.

    "I don't know if I'm ready for that" says Mrs. Foley, upon hearing sone of the possibilities. "I'll have to talk to my husband."

    Hurry, because all this has moved well beyond the conversation-starter stage. A number of engineers, scientists and inventors are developing a variety of residential portals to be used mainly for products ordered on the Internet (though they would obviously work far catalog purchases, too). These receptacles are to be separate from -- not to replace -- the mailboxes of the U.S. Postal Service, which are off-limits to express-delivery companies. They are getting encouragement from Web-based retailers. Internet shopping is expected to double this fall from last year's holiday gift season, which racked up sales of more than $2 billion.

    "This is the next major household appliance: 'The Mailbox of the Millennium,'" says Tom Frey, senior researcher of the DaVinci Institute, a futurist think tank in Longmont, Colo. "'It will make home delivery much more agreeable to consumers who can't be there, or want things delivered while they're asleep."

    For Web-based retailers, says Mr. Frey, "this is a vital solution to the problem of leaving things under the doormat or behind the bushes." But the whole subject is a can of worms.

    "There are issues of security, liability and maintenance," says David Porter, a Kansas City, Mo., dry cleaner who has invested $250,000 in developing his patented Srnartbox -- a tough but soft folding container that can be attached to the outside of a house or apartment.

    Bearing the Cost

    Most of the designs in development are roughly the size of 'hotel guest-room refrigerators and cost about $300 apiece to produce. Many in the fledgling industry expect them to be rented to householders for, say, $25 a month. Consumers' fees might be shared and reduced by charging deliverers each time they use the new portals.

    Why should they pay? Carl Alguire, senior vice president of operations at Peapod, Inc., a grocery-delivery company based in Skokie, Ill., says, "If it encourages more orders for our business, it might be worth it." He adds: "If you had houses equipped with climate-controlled boxes, everyone could stop worrying about whether the ice cream is going to melt."

    Then maybe they could focus on the variety of uses for their new boxes, which Mr. Porter of Smartbox expects will generally be about as capacious as a car trunk: "Golf clubs and skis would be fine, but not a set of living-room furniture. There are limits."

    A recent survey of 600 homeowners in eight major cities, conducted by Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, Mo., and paid for by Mr. Portcr, asked people to estimate how mnch their use of home delivery would go up if they had such a device. Their projected personal increases included: prescriptions (up 23%), groceries (22%), dry cleaning (25%), prepared meals (21%), and alcoholic beverages (15%).

    Moneyed and Computerized

    The survey, which examined households with incomes of at least $50,000 and a personal computer. recorded individual responses from consumers, who were asked to name specific things they would have delivered. Among the diverse answers:

    "Ice for parties." (The iceman cometh.)

    "Seedlings from National Arbor Day Foundation."

    "Feed for horses."

    "Could have jewelry shipped out tbr cleaning and returned."

    "Could have pets returned from pet groomer."

    But when asked by Midwest Research to list worries about a Mailbox of the Millennium, many made it clear they aren't ready to go there just yet. Among their responses:

    "Sounds big and ugly. Might ruin aesthetics of my S200,000 house."

    "How heat-resistant is it? Arizona is really hot."'

    "Not necessary. Our servants are there to receive everything."

    "No need. We live across the street from a convenience store."

    "Sounds too expensive. I'll just wait for my packages. Thank you."

    Of course, the creators of the new boxes insist that consumers' desires can be fulfilled, and their anxieties allayed. John Rovani, co-owner of, in Arlington. Va., says, "We have a patent pending on a box with separate sections that are refrigerated and heated, and the controlling computer system communicates with our e-commerce site," a portal that allows households to order and then assigns delivery companies a one-time-only access code to the mailbox.

    The new boxes, while large, can be designed in a variety of colors coordinated to match the houses. Mr. Porter's Smartbox, when not in use, folds up to a fraction of its size when full.

    Pop-Up Models

    Christopher Kaletka, a high-school chemistry teacher in Cleveland, is associatcd with aerospace engineer Pat Sebastian in devising a box that could be buried in the consumer's yard, like a fruit cellar. Says Mr. Kaletka "The Internet retailer would receive not only an access code, but directions to where the box is hidden. The delivery-truck driver would be able to click on a handheld computer and the mailbox pops out of the ground."

    Richard Lee, a Cincinnati marketer of specialty mailboxes, has lately been advertising a box with fluorescently lighted house numbers. "People are ordering round-the-clock from their computers, and the items are going to come at all hours," he says. But he admits the glowing boxes aren't selling well just yet. "We're slightly ahead of the curve on this."

    A more important requirement for boxes of the future is anti-theft protection, says Ron Steiner, vice president of GDM Co., the Sandusky, Ohio, maker of Heavybilt brand boxes. "You're going to need a vault outside your house to keep all that internet stuff in.... We test our new models by attacking them with a baseball bat."

    Well, delivery security needs don't seem that extreme yet to Mrs. Foley, ordering groceries online in leafy Lake Forest. The only delivery thefts she has heard about in her neighborhood are perpetrated by raccoons.

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