A study by scientists at Seoul National University and the University of Minnesota suggests that delivery of online purchases may have a lower environmental impact in suburban and low-density residential situations than customer pickup or conventional shopping. The research results indicate that pickup location systems, for example where buyers pickup goods from a subway location or a grocery store, may increase travel miles and emissions compared to a delivery system using a route designed for efficiency. The not necessarily intuitive reason for these results seems to be that delivery systems are most often organized for the most efficient routing while individual trips to stores and pickup locations are haphazard and highly duplicative.
GallonDaily points out that this research is by no means the last word on this subject and it may be difficult to reach conclusions that are uniform for all geographical settings. However, whatever the system used it is clear that much more needs to be done to increase the efficiency of delivery systems. For example, in a typical low density residential area, current delivery routes include at least school buses twice a day, one or more newspapers, mail, and a range of parcel and envelope delivery companies. Cooperation between delivery services could surely reduce these half dozen or more delivery services by at least 50%, with a corresponding reduction in fuel use and emissions.
The study results are published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es301302k – the abstract is free; a subscription or article purchase is required for the full text.