Philly alternative to Amazon, Bloc Delivery offers next day delivery by electric bike
When large trucks ply the city streets, they can cause headaches, as Philadelphians know all too well. Distributor trucks often spoil work on major arteries, while Amazon vans create traffic jams on more residential roads.
Longtime Mount Airy resident and cycling fan Alison Cohen saw this problem as an opportunity. What if e-cargo bikes – which have a considerably smaller footprint, both physically and environmentally – could cushion the impact of these deliveries?
Cohen is an experienced entrepreneur: she is the founder and CEO of Bicycle transport systems, the company behind Indego bike sharing and Philly bike sharing in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and has been instrumental in launching similar programs in Boston, Washington and New York .
In late 2019, she and Bicycle Transit CFO Jenn Grega invested in a 500-pound electric bike to experiment with the idea; they didn’t know the coronavirus was set to make delivery more popular than ever.
Once the pandemic hit, they saw small physical stores struggling under orders to shut down. This added a new dimension: They could also offer a central online platform for small businesses, allowing customers to shop locally with the same delivery convenience that Amazon offers.
It’s like that Bulk delivery came about. Go to his site and you can buy everything from piles to bread, or drying balls and goat milk soap to artisan cheese and an Aeropress. Its products are sourced from approximately 25 retailers in Northwest, West and South Philadelphia including Monarch Hardware, Germantown Bicycle Supply, Philly Game Shop, Good Buy Supply, Big Blue Marble Bookstore and Weavers Way, Mariposa and South Philly Food co-ops.
Equipped with three big e-bikes that can easily hold 10 grocery runs, Bloc has delivered around 4,000 customers since launching in the spring of 2020. It recently launched next day delivery to 23 city zip codes – pretty much everywhere, but the northeast and farthest West Philly. Before, Bloc delivered to a prescribed radius of the stores it works with. Now a South Philly customer can order products from Philadelphia Runner in University City or Nesting House in Germantown and have them on their doorstep the next day.
We spoke with Cohen about Bloc’s decision to deliver (almost) citywide, its ambitions for the future, and the logistics of its day-to-day life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What we’re trying to do is source the kinds of products that most people get on Amazon from local businesses, and the only way to do that is to provide full coverage of the city. For example, something like school supplies is proving very difficult to find from a non-Amazon or non-chain. But there are a few. So if we’re going to get school supplies where you keep your local money, we’ve got to source it, say, in West Philly. If we want to supply electronics, not all neighborhoods have an electronics store.
We were initially worried about the logistics of delivery across the city, but we deeply believe that this is a giant opportunity. We have to get customer buy-in, and the way to get customer buy-in is to offer something that no one else is doing. When you think about being able to keep your local money no matter what you need to buy, that’s extremely powerful.
We’re like a speck of dust on Amazon’s skin right now, but absolutely. I think there are millions of people, even in our city, who use Amazon but hate the fact that they use Amazon. You are aware that you are tearing your community apart. You are aware that you are providing more fuel for climate change. You are aware that the dollar you spend locally is recycled six times in your community, and this one just goes somewhere. But it’s so convenient and they have it all, so you do it anyway. And we know there are so many people like that out there, and we just have to find them.
And whether it’s Amazon, Walmart, or Target, it’s best for communities to do it that way. The general retail market is so big, even if it’s only a tiny fraction that we can get, it’s a huge impact on communities and a huge impact on climate change. What we’re trying to do is standardize this type of delivery, in the hope that this is the seed to help grow many different businesses. [to adopt it]. Because no one does large-scale electric cargo bike delivery.
Our hope is to demonstrate that there is a very large consumer market here in Philadelphia for people who want to spend their money locally and with minority owned businesses and then take that model and expand it nationwide. I did it by bike sharing, where there are a lot of similarities. Bike sharing technology started in Europe, and I was one of the leaders in taking what was successful in Europe and implementing it on a large scale in a different model in the United States. There is large scale delivery with these bikes in Europe, not necessarily with the online market.
Our first mountain to climb is to find funding. We have a lead investor for a round. There is so much momentum in this market and delivery space that we really think we need to be competitive. So what we want to do is prove that Philadelphia is a big city that has a market for this service; we think we can do it in a year or two. And if we can prove that Philly is a great demo market, then we think we can scale very quickly.
We don’t use gig economy workers so they are staff. One of the main differences is that we don’t just do one order at a time. It’s not that last minute thing with workers waiting. They know that they are staffed for a certain period of time and that they are paid for the time they spend working. Depending on whether it is a cooperative order or the volume is low, we can also do the shopping. They are alerted the day before to know which orders, how many orders, which route. They introduce themselves, pick up the bike. It might be shopping at Weavers Way and then picking up Wild Hand, the yarn store here in Mount Airy. Maybe you make those deliveries and then relay to Brewerytown, where another driver picks up the delivery to deliver to South Philly. As they deliver the orders, they work with our shipping, which text the customer saying, “Here is a photo of this dropped off.”
We have about seven to ten people on staff. Our runners depend on the volume at any given time. We provide training as soon as they start. They absolutely have to be comfortable riding the city streets. Some of our top delivery specialists were by no means expert riders but were very excited about the mission and trained and comfortable with the vehicle. The unloaded vehicle itself weighs 500 pounds. It has a capacity of 40 cubic feet. Whatever you put in it, you hardly feel it, because the vehicle itself is heavy. You couldn’t do it without electric assistance, which has a top speed of 15 miles per hour.
It’s a mix of the two. We’re definitely getting inbound calls and we have a local business liaison that initially targeted specific businesses, but we’re much more intentional when it comes to our range of products and businesses these days. So we need an office supply store, we need an electronics store, we need a hardware store. We need more gift shops. We want to make sure that we have more black owned businesses, so we are reaching out to some of them proactively as well.
Correct, it is a single fund for several small businesses. And that’s what we think the power of this is. If you’ve tried spending your money locally it’s like, “This one, I order it online and I can order delivery.” This one is a curb pickup and they will call me in two weeks. This one… ”It’s a mixture everywhere. It’s only one transaction, then we take care of the backend and it comes to your door the next day.