Thousands of words. Trillions of addresses.
Whether you call them postcodes, postal codes, or zip codes, this series of letters, digits or both is the global standard for last-mile delivery. But they’re not as precise as you think – and nonexistent in some parts of the world. So how can three simple words ensure you get a package.delivered.precisely? The answer takes us to London in September 2022.
As Queen Elizabeth II lay in state at Westminster Hall in London following her death in September 2022, mourners came by the thousands to pay their respects. The queue to enter Westminster Hall stretched for miles, with people patiently shuffling along for hours for the opportunity to say goodbye. The line, and the togetherness and emotions shared by the people in it, was a touching tribute to the Queen’s 70-year reign.
But the line also proved to be a logistical challenge. Mourners gathering in London needed to answer a simple but crucial question: where exactly is the back of the line?
That’s where what3words came in. The location technology provides users with a precise three-meter square location, anywhere on Earth, based on an address made up of three unique words from the dictionary. The British Government used what3words to help manage the line to enter Westminster Hall, regularly updating the public on where to find the end of the queue. So as the line stretched down the River Thames, people could check online and learn that the start was near London Bridge at ///send.edit.maybe, for example.
At its longest, the queue stretched ten miles: seven miles to Southwark Park at ///navy.noises.overnight, with another three miles zigzagging through the park. The regularly updated what3words addresses directed people to the right place in the park at the right time.
It may seem like such a small step, but the three-word addresses represent a quantum leap forward from postcodes – which, interestingly enough, were introduced toward the beginning of the Queen’s reign. Better known as ZIP codes in the US or postal codes in Canada, postcodes first gained widespread use in the UK and US in the 1960s around the same time similar systems were becoming prevalent in other parts of the world.
These codes dramatically improved a relatively mundane process: sorting mail. But what they were never meant to do was help us navigate. Consider how often you’ve put an address into your maps app only to have trouble finding the exact building or entrance you’re looking for once you arrive. Postcodes and street addresses simply weren’t designed to be used with satellite navigation, which didn’t exist at the time.
For example, what address should you share with friends when planning a picnic in the middle of a large park? Or if you have an accident on a hike in the woods? GPS coordinates could work, but ///rental.irony.safari is a lot easier than N 51° 09.268’ W 002° 35.280 ’ .
Our smart devices can process global latitudes and longitudes, but what3words has created something simple that anyone can use.
This is good news for e-commerce, a booming industry that relies heavily on precise location data to complete last-mile deliveries. Getting packages to customers on the first try is mission critical (minimizes costs and emissions), and what3words is proving to be a valuable tool for maximizing success.
Couriers in many countries use the postal address to navigate to customer locations. But in many cases, the address doesn’t tell them where exactly to ring the doorbell. By adding the what3words address to a delivery, you can give the driver the exact location of your front door.
Why go looking for the latest logistics trends and business insights when you can have them delivered right to you?
DHL customers in the UK have been able to add their what3words address to their Delivery Preferences in the DHL Parcel App since early 2022. This more precise delivery location has had precisely the effect we anticipated, and we’ve found it particularly useful for rural or ambiguous postal addresses.
That’s why we’re taking our cooperation with what3words a step further. Now, our UK retail customers can add a what3words field at checkout so customers can specify exactly where they want their deliveries to go.
While what3words adds a layer of precision to a system that, for the most part, works reasonably well, it can be a game-changer in countries where postal addresses are uncommon. It enables companies to offer new goods and services.
For instance, the on-demand economy is thriving in some parts of the world. Using what3words technology, these services could enter markets with under-developed address systems. In such cases, what3words provides an opportunity to skip the enormous task of developing a postcode system in the first place.
Although what3words got a lot of attention because of ‘The Queue’ (as it became known), the technology worked because most people in the UK were already familiar with it. In England, an early adopter of postcodes, what3words addresses are now commonplace. That came from local rollouts in years prior by city councils, emergency services, and even hard-to-find pubs that had used what3words to steer customers in the right direction. As awareness grew, what3words became a de facto official standard that could be used so universally.
As more e-commerce retailers and logistics providers begin integrating what3words into the checkout and delivery process, we believe the technology will become a standard part of last-mile delivery too. Soon getting a ///package.delivered.precisely where you want it will be just three words away.
Published: February 2023