For all the reasons why people love shopping online, instant gratification isn't one of them. Buyers typically wait days for their packages to arrive, and that lag time gets even longer if you're not home the moment the delivery person rings the doorbell. That may be part of the reason why online shopping, which currently accounts for just 5% of all retail sales in the U.S., is already beginning to stall.
According to Jupiter Research, annual growth in the $116 billion business, which reached 25% in 2004, is expected to slip to below 10% by 2010. A few retailers like Zappos.com, which sold $600 million worth of shoes and accessories last year, still entice shoppers with free overnight shipping. But that's a big expense for any business to swallow. So more often than not, consumers pay a premium to get goods shipped, and then spend anxious days waiting for their new bathing suit, DVD box set or laptop computer to arrive.
Now an upstart in Cambridge, Mass., wants to make it easier to receive packages at home. IdentiCert has developed a modular, electronic storage box system that can be installed in any apartment or condominium complex. Invented by three recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management and funded by private investors, the easyQube kiosk is modeled after low-tech oversized mailboxes secured by key that have long been used in Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries. EasyQubes, on the other hand, open with an electronic swipe card, and recipients are notified via email when their package has arrived.
Each easyQube kiosk has between eight and 50 storage compartments, depending on the number of residents in each building and how many packages they receive. When you order a package, instead of giving your home address, you have it sent to a special, local address provided by IdentiCert. Once the company receives your package, it delivers it to the easyQube in your building (which it unlocks using the swipe card system) and sends you an email. Consumer access to each compartment which measures about 2 ft. in height, depth and width is managed using a timeshare system similar to Zipcars and NetJets. Instead of having permanent use of a specific compartment, you are simply renting the space when a package is waiting for you. As soon as you retrieve the parcel, the access code is changed and the compartment is turned over to whoever needs it next. "We're trying to bring down the cost by timesharing it," says IdentiCert co-founder Jorge Calzada.
Calzada estimates that half of all urban dwellers about 20% of all U.S. residents could benefit from the easyQube. While online retailers and shippers contacted by TIME downplayed the hassles caused by people not being home to receive packages "it's in the low single digits," says Jim Cochrane, Manager of Package Services for the U.S. Postal Service, when asked what percentage of items get returned to sender it's a real headache for many shoppers. "We had major problems with UPS. The items would not get delivered and sometimes the notices didn't get delivered," says Alexey Veraksa, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, who is one of easyQube's beta testers and a regular customer of Amazon.com.
It could be a while, however, before there's an easyQube in your building foyer. Currently installed in about six complexes in the Boston area, the steel boxes are being redesigned this fall with a sleeker look and larger compartments to accommodate dry-cleaning and groceries. To get the device, you'll need to convince your landlord (or coop board) to give it a try. While installation is free, residents will pay a $10 per month usage fee. Even Veraksa has quibbles with that price. "I'd be willing to pay $1 or $2 per item," but that's all, he says.