Company: ShopLink.com, Westwood, Mass.

Operation: Private retail distribution fleet; Brad Volez, vp of PCC Development

Problem: When your entire e-commerce business plan is based on home deliveries in rambling suburban communities, you'd better have the most productive fleet possible, especially if you're trying to compete in the low-margin grocery business.

ShopLink.com is attempting to replace the weekly trip to the supermarket with a Web site and fleets of Class 6 dry van trucks, bringing everything else you'd find in a large modern supermarket right to a customer's door. In addition, it offers busy families "concierge services," including dry cleaning, photo development, shoe repair, and even UPS shipping. The target audience for its services is relatively affluent two-earner families in the spread-out suburbs that surround most of the major cities in the U.S.

Initial response to the new service has been better than good. A Connecticut facility opened at the end of January, with just over 100 orders in its first week. By the end of February, its weekly order had topped 1,000 and is continuing to climb rapidly.

A service-based business like ShopLink.com has to be able to handle growth without any service failure, yet still maintain optimum fleet productivity, to remain a viable business.

Solution: Currently, each driver in the Connecticut/N.Y. operation is averaging 40 deliveries on a single daily trip with an Isuzu FTR and a 20-ft. insulated box, according to Brad Volez, vp-PCC development. Drivers use two-wheel handtrucks to transfer the groceries in special "totes" to secured locations such as inside garages for unattended delivery.

Fleet productivity starts with a Web-based home-delivery system developed by Descartes Systems Group. ShopLink.com has developed its own warehouse management system, using wrist-mounted bar-code scanners with RF wireless transmitters and bar-coded totes to pick and track customer orders placed online.

That system is tied directly to Descartes' route optimization and planning system, which geocodes orders as they are placed to verify customer addresses and then builds routes and schedules orders, providing street-level maps and directions.

Currently, totes are scanned as they are loaded into the trucks, and any exceptions or problems are handled by Nextel wireless digital voice services. "Our next step," says Volez, "is adding GPS (global positioning system) and wireless data. The exceptions, as well as the GPS location information, will also be fed into the Descartes system for better dynamic route planning. Once in place, the wireless data/dynamic routing system should boost productivity by as much as one-half turns a day per driver, Volez estimates.

Although he expects to boost the fleet size somewhat, Volez believes the highly automated routing system, combined with the company's warehouse system, will eventually allow the Connecticut facility to handle 3,500 deliveries a day.