Friday, March 20, 2020

Ocado shuts its website. Let's brainstorm!

So today Ocado shuttered the rest of its website. I've long pondered their impressive operation, so let's do some arbitrary brainstorming based on the sparse information I have.

  Neighbour Groups - Improve route efficiency and customer absence

The idea here is pretty simple - that a group of neighbours voluntarily connect their accounts, and permit the other members to know when their delivery will be. That would then trigger the availability of free delivery into the same slot.

Ocado wins here in two ways: firstly, by the obvious route of increasing the clustering of deliveries such that the cost for the additional deliveries is minimised, permitting faster route completion, lower fuel and staff costs per delivery, or in the oversubscribed corona scenario playing out, to increase the deliveries per shift.

The second way they win is that in the event that a customer in such a group is out, the driver has a list of alternative people to deliver to - either by default or by electing to do so, the customer can permit delivery to another member of the group. This should reduce the time and expense wasted by absences.

A key factor right now that would drive take up by customers would be that they could book these slots if any of their neighbours already had that slot. So joining or spurring a neighbour group would be a way to get a precious de delivery slot otherwise unavailable.

Ocado could also offer a lower minimum spend on these slots, as the operational cost is barely higher than someone editing their order.

Segregate customers into alternating groups to cut load

Suppose we divide customers into red and green. The red customers could order deliveries on red days, and the green customers on green days. The website would also only be available for red customers on red days, and green customers on green days. The split can be easily done based on customer ID.

This should be pretty easy for customers to grasp, and once they have tried to log in on the wrong day, they are unlikely to keep trying on the wrong days. They could even be given the Red Login Page and the Green Login Page on static servers which would inform them it was the wrong day without touching the database.

A further benefit could be derived by optimising the division of customers to group them geographically - this would lower average miles per delivery, and thus increase the number of deliveries per shift. People in a given area would all know which colour applied to them.

The division could be done into more groups, though that would make it harder for customers to know which days were theirs - a 2 day pattern fits 2 weeks.

Essentially the entire operation could in theory be divided this way, including stock allocations and databases, as it would become 2 Ocados.

 Predefine approximate delivery schedule and offer the few slots closest to it

At present when I choose a slot I am offered lots of choice. Normally that would be important to Ocado's competitive offering. But this is a different world. By only offering the few slots which are closest to the planned route, Ocado can really heavily optimise the number of deliveries it can make.

An example plan might be to take all the orders over a given few days, remove duplicate addresses, and work out what route would have roughly minimised the total distance or would have minimised the total delivery time. Or alternatively put in a set of dummy orders which anchor the available schedule and leave the system in a permanent state of filling gaps.

Ocado is now in the driving seat, and the customers are far less fussed about particular slot availability.

This approach also gives Ocado a useful lever to pull- they can increase or decrease the number of slots they offer from this ranked list, so that they can respond to further changes in demand or capacity.

It could also permit longer routes with larger vehicles to mix in with the standard set.

Offer dry deliveries

Ocado cannot rapidly ramp up its delivery force because of the need to refrigerate the load. But many people will just need storecupboard items, so Ocado could offer dry shops which are all non fresh, and could be delivered by a more temporary workforce drafted in for capacity. These vehicles could also be larger and on longer routes, perhaps with an additional delivery person to cut unloading times.

This offering could be entirely parallel with the main Ocado site and network, even using a duplicate website which only shares user authentication with the main site. For Ocado technologies it would be a demonstration of their platform and its capacity to adapt.

Warehouseless logistics

What is a lorry but a warehouse with wheels? Given how briefly some products are stored, it is conceivable that for some consignments it would be possible to transfer goods directly fr the original lorry to the delivery trucks without a warehouse in between. Temporary interchange points could be set up in strategic locations, entirely bypassing the main warehouses. This would work well with the dry delivery idea, and could be rapidly expanded - ultimately this could look like emergency humanitarian aid with only a handful of product lines being distributed.

A pasta, bog roll and soap delivery service would be gold in the south east right now.


A very straightforward way to improve unloading times would be to put an unpacker with each driver. This would improve turnaround at each address. Delivery costs might have to go up as a result, but at present I think that would be accepted by the customer base.

Raise delivery charges

 This is a pretty simple step to address multiple facets. The hope would be that the extra cost would incentivise people to voluntarily reduce their delivery frequency, whilst offering a stronger incentive to take the reduced cost delivery slots which I assume are near existing deliveries. If combined with the unpacker role above, there is a straightforward narrative to give the customers when the change is announced.

In sum:  Ocado is in the position to radically increase capacity by turning down some of the niceties traditionally offered

Ocado, and Ocado Technology, have built a system on some underlying assumptions and requirements about delivery slots and customer expectations, and that has been very successful at producing a logistics system. But now and for the foreseeable future, customers are willing to drop their expectations and accept a compromise, which opens the doors to some pretty huge changes to the operating model which could multiply the number of slots and deliveries per van per shift many times over.

I would probably rank these ideas time wise as: raising delivery charges (immediate), predefined routes (hours-days), segregate customers (days), unpackers (days-weeks), then the rest are weeks to months.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Future Domes

Like a lot of geeks I like to guess at the future and how it will look. So I thought I'd flesh out an idea of how part of society will live, I think: In domes.

As with any good prediction, we'll base this in a series of current trends, and extrapolate a necessary solution which combines them. The trends for today are: growing wealth inequality, deteriorating environment, the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, growing concerns about UV damage and technological development in automation.

If you are rich, and you want to give your children the best possible upbringing, there are a few tradeoffs you cannot currently buy your way out of: proximity to a major city vs quality of environment, freedom to roam outside vs sun damage to skin, availability of services vs exposure risk to pathogens. The rich want to be near the city for its resources, for jobs, for services, but away from it for quality of environment and lifestyle.

One way to deal with that is to buy a big expensive apartment in the city, with staff to provide services. This gives you control over your environment, proximity to everything and so on. But you are a prisoner in a hermetically sealed box, and few such boxes are very big. There is no grass in an apartment, no running except on a nearby running track or a treadmill, no hills to climb or lake to sit beside.

But if you took the Mediterranean biome (bio-dome) from the Eden project, and built it within a 30 minute commute of the centre of London or New York, then you would have something. An enclosed environment like that is far easier to regulate than an open area, and less claustrophobic than an apartment. A leafy suburb where the temperature is always between 18 and 23 centigrade, where the sunlight is filtered for unwanted UV and crucially it never rains in the daytime except on a schedule.

In some ways it is an elitist's dream; to be able to exclude anyone outside this expensive set, to have as much control as you want over the miniature world you have built, down to the weather. And I'm not suggesting that it is something that we necessarily want to encourage.

But I think it looks inevitable.

The climate is changing, except in a dome. Sunlight is both enjoyable and dangerous, except in a dome. It simultaneously provides control and security; no drone can fly over your garden in a dome, no pigeon can shit on your doorstep. Your children can be kept much better protected from the pathogens in the air, or on people who frequently fly to remote countries.

Being in a controlled environment permits different styles of living; your dining table can be outside if it never rains or freezes. Your bedroom can have a glass roof for you to look at the stars. Your children can get up by themselves, leave the house without sunscreen to chase each other across the meadow to the breakfast hut. They didn't need shoes, or coats or hats, or even money. And the key benefit to this expensive, expensive paradise? Their city parents can be home for dinner.

In some ways it would be terribly sad for some of the wealthiest to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, for their children to be ignorant of what the rest of the world looks like, smells like. It will make it easier for them to deny the gap in quality of life between themselves and the poorer members of society, to ignore the people on whose services they depend. But this is what the richest have always done, because it is convenient to live like that, and I suspect it is hard not to end up doing that to some degree.

The bio-dome structure makes it possible to construct a space large enough for several families to live in, which is self-supporting and still transparent, where you don't feel like you're inside a building. As a physical barrier it permits control of the very air that circulates and the weather inside. I suspect with some tweaks it would be possible to build a dome that could be enlarged as investment comes in.

So I predict that there will be domes built near cities for the richest to raise their families, that will be disliked by people out of a mixture of resentment and envy. But I also think that unless climate change is reversed, it will be a mode that houses a growing proportion of the population.

I would like one of the penthouses attached to the surface of the bio-dome, where your glass ceiling is the only barrier to the outside world, but where the front door leads into the bottled paradise around you. And I would delight in walking in sandalled feet with my wife along a paved path with pretty, low lights, to the cosy restaurant-theatre among the trees.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Quadcopters are here, and they are cheap. Banksy's modus operandi is to spray up a ready-made stencil very quickly, and disappear. That is the key to his success - it has permitted him to evade prosecution, and to make the most of the magic in the appearance of an image on a previously blank wall. So, the combination of the two is obvious: use a quadcopter to stencil the wall. Untraceable, controllable via 3g link with a pre-pay SIM, and capable of painting at scales and heights that would challenge a human. With some clever software, a fleet of quadcopters could be deployed and work in parallel. Of course, the flip side is that the council can spray over the artwork with their own quadcopter, so maybe start coating the artwork in transparent vinyl.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The future of physical retail

Response to Supermarkets Without Cash Registers, Amazon In Strip Malls, the Future of Retail Is Weird, on

The article marvels at a few things; removal of cash registers as people scan and buy by phone or NFC wherever they are, big box retailing becoming showrooms for online retailers by accident, retailers selling product lines exclusively to fend off online competition. But most of this is already here, not on its way.

I can already shop at my supermarket using a mobile scanner, although I do have to pay at a cash register. That's a pretty easy jump to make.

Big box retailers already prefer to sell items only available at that chain; laptops are sold with different model numbers and marginally different specifications to make comparison difficult, and generic items are bundled with higher-margin items to permit a profit over the whole sale.

Showrooming, however, might just change things. Suppose a consumer wants to buy a laptop and a manufacturer wants to sell it. In the old system, you went to the shop. Mail-order was possible, but both expensive and uncertain. With amazon et al, neither is the case any more. But at the limit where no-one buys from the shop, why would it still exist? It must make money from the still-present need, of shoppers to actually feel the thing they're buying. Pictures do not do physical objects justice.

So the consumers want a showroom, but they no longer consider the old pact (pay enough to cover those costs) to be worthwhile. Apple has an answer; own the whole snake from production to consumption, and be the exclusive distributor. But only a handful of multi-billion-dollar companies can afford to be both national and have stores, or have enough products to make such a store (I'm thinking of the Apple resellers, or Sony franchisees) worthwhile.

The only other party with an interest in the showroom beside the consumer is the manufacturer. We're limiting ourselves (by the non-multi-billion argument) to manufacturers without the reach or perhaps the breadth of products to have their own stores, like Asus or Logitech, or Black & Decker. I think the answer for them is to subsidize the showroom.

It's possible that dedicated showrooms could pop up, showing a wide range of products and charging the manufacturer or distributor for placement in different areas outright. They could perhaps include a kiosk for buying a product there and then at a premium, but the expected mode would be what people do secretively already; scan the code, compare prices and order online.

I suspect, however, that a less clear-cut bargain is more likely. In the same way that supermarkets charge producers for better product placement (effectively adding shelf rental to the mix), big box retailers would expect ever larger subsidies from the manufacturers, until actual sales were no-longer their primary revenue stream. At this point, if becomes viable to show online store prices right on the shelf; Amazon could do a deal with the retailer for the retailer to do just that, and a smaller chain might show the prices regardless of an affiliation incentive.

The mistake the qz article makes, for me, is to suggest that virtual and physical are comparable, that a virtual shop can replace a physical one. The reverse is true. People that want to see the physical item do not want a virtual substitute; online or off, they want to pick up the book (for now), try on the dress, try clicking the camera shutter. Creating a virtual version of a physical store, with screens instead of shelves, is a hiding to nothing. The only difference between that and shopping online at home is that the product selection is more limited, so perhaps a decision is easier. But even that is easily remedied by a new online store.

Interestingly, once the need to make money selling physical boxes is gone, many other possibilities open up. Showrooms would be competing for their ability to show off the product and assist purchasing (wherever from), not their ability to suck you in and leave via the cash register. If it were me, I would set up a smaller shop in a mall with gadgets in, sell the shelf space and learn how to use all the gadgets. I would put Which and online reviews of items right with the item, provide live updating displays of prices from various retailers, and fill the shop floor with helpful staff.

If that sounds much like an Apple store, that's because it has many of the same goals; to provide the physical aspect of the purchase experience, to show off the product more than make the sale, and it too would be paid for by the manufacturer rather than the till sales. Crucially, though, it wouldn't be Apple. The customer would get the best prices for the products, which themselves would be competing in the marketplace. This is the Apple experience, but for the mass rather than the luxury market (Apple doesn't want you if you have less money).

Some other things would inevitably be borrowed from Apple; the genius bar is the flipside of the physical sales world, the ability to point at a broken screen and ask what it will cost to fix, rather than filing some form or a call centre call. The support side is a significant cost to the manufacturer, so there is a good incentive there for the showroom to offer such services at the cost of the manufacturer rather than the customer. And all the good things follow from such alignment of need and cost; a shop could demand much lower incentives from manufacturers with easily replaced parts, and charge much more for send-off-to-this-address setups. There could be a clean room upstairs, where you can actually watch your product being fixed.

I've concentrated really on big box electronics retail, but these are all generic observations, which would be true for clothes or any other sector. Clothing is way ahead here; department stores already provide a set of concessions which are presumably rented to individual retailers. The staff are general rather than manufacturer-specific, as is the sales and return setup. So if we look in that direction, we might expect to see concessions in our showroom.

There is opportunity for the forces of evil to corrupt the vision, however. With control over their concessions the manufacturers would opt to limit the set of retailers whose prices are displayed, and remove unfriendly reviews. And with the manufacturers firmly in the seat of funding, they would call the tune. To me, this is counterproductive; if you want to make a store, make a store. If you want an arena in which the customer feels confident to make the best decision and neither ripped off nor hoodwinked, then you have to actually behave that way.

An anecdote from the world of surprising retail innovation is relevant here: on a recent holiday to a coastal town, there turned out to be a shop whose owner simply rented shelf space to local craftspeople. In much the same abstract way as the concessions, they offered a unified service to the customer but neither set the prices nor chose the goods. Inevitably, the shopkeeper is able to provide crucial feedback to the craftspeople about what kinds of goods sold well, offer critical analysis of works in progress and so on; they are the whole interface between the customer and the manufacturer but as a service to both rather than the customer of either.

Argos offers a physical version of the virtual store; you can ask to look at any item before buying it, and the choice of a vast range over a vast showroom makes it a reliable source for convenience shopping. Suppose we do the same here; make part of the shop a warehouse of a few items of each product. Sell the shelf space to the manufacturers again. But next, permit the items in stock to be sold by any retailer involved. If Amazon are a partner, you're buying that camera from Amazon, and you execute the sale and any later claim through them. In effect the product sale is a transferrable contract which is sold to whichever retailer buys it for the highest price, and the customer gets the product there and then.

The future of retailing may well be very different, and how we choose to pay or from whom we purchase are the least of the changes.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Free samples

Seth compares free sample consumers at a farmer's market to those of digital media; the first are characterised as vultures, eating into the traders' margins, while online the samples cost the provider nothing. I think he's basically right. I also think the careless consumers of free samples could be better managed with some psychology: put the samples nearer the traders and further away from the punters. It requires more boldness to pick up a sample from right in front of the vendor than to take a couple from an unobserved plate. There's some psychology to be mixed into the digital free sample as well. Every piece of digital media should have its origin printed through it like a stick of rock; in the filename, in the audio track, in the image. Never leave someone searching for the source of a file. My divergence from Seth in general is that I think content will be freely and widely distributed in the future; not because it's pirated, but because it's given away. And not just samples; free stuff won't just be a taster for the paid stuff, because there's no sensible way to make digital media into a commodity that you buy. In this future, the storefront doesn't exist. You hear a great new piece of music because a friend shares it with you, or your content aggregators suggest it. You go to the source of it to get some more, which is also free. And you add the creator of it to the list of people you thank with money. No storefront, because the product sells itself. No artificial scarcity of 'tasters', or 'free samples'. Free will be implicit, because everything is 'free' at the point of consumption. Samples could perhaps be the paid addon; the extra detail that only remixers and fans want. When the tail is so long, only a tiny minority can be 'sold' with specific marketing, salesmen, etc. The vast majority will have to sell itself.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Just wrote an auto-memoizer for single-valued functions as an answer to a StackOverflow question:
function memoize(func, max) {
    max = max || 5000;
    return (function() {
        var cache = {};
        var remaining = max;
        function fn(n) {
            return (cache[n] || (remaining-- >0 ? (cache[n]=func(n)) : func(n)));
        return fn;

function fact(n) {
    return n<2 ? 1: n*fact(n-1);

var memfact = memoize(fact,170);
Based on an implementation of factorial function by user xPheRe:
var factorial = (function() {
    var cache = {},
        fn = function(n) {
            if (n === 0) {
                return 1;
            } else if (cache[n]) {
                return cache[n];
            return cache[n] = n * fn(n -1);
    return fn;
Things I like:
  • It memoizes anything
  • The cache limit prevents stupid things like memoizing where there are floats
  • It's faster than the if/else original
I could add in a trigger which replaced the function with a straight call after too many misses, so that even wrongly-memoized functions weren't slowed down after a number of calls.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rituals, expectations, culture

On reading Ken's post on rituals:

I've been thinking about this recently. I think a culture defines a set of public and private expectations of its members. People that do not conform to these expectations are cold-shouldered. We usually call it being rude, or antisocial. In one society, one finishes everything on the plate to show it was good. In another, we leave a little to show we the host was generous. There is probably a historic reason for each, and doing the wrong one will make us seem rude.

The key is that a culture needs to be largely predictable for it to function. I need to be able to expect to go to dinner without taking a plate, or to know to take my plate. The more uncertain the behaviour of everyone else, the more precautions and preparations I have to make.

In a village, social cohesion is important, and there are not that many people, so I can and should greet everyone I pass. But in a city, I cannot afford to greet everyone I pass, and the culture must permit this. So we have cities where no-one makes eye contact, despite inhabiting each other's personal space.

A different slant, however, is provided by the religious or moral code. Often, particularly for the believers, these are not merely rituals but ways to honour their diety; the ritual represents their own hierarchy. She chose to observe her ritual instead of socialising, which some will respect and others will see as an affront.