Whether for a road-trip or work, you’ve probably had to plan at least one route at some point in the past.
What you might have discovered in doing so, is that Route Planning can be quite the complicated process. Deciding which destination to visit, and in which order can prove a bit of a headache.
When it comes to business, however, it can be crucial to success. Making the most of your drivers' vehicles can have a much wider impact on the quality of your businesses services and/or products. Whether you own a dedicated transport, courier or logistics company, you want to begin in-house delivery of your products, or you’re just starting to plan how you will deliver products for your new startup, this blog will provide you with everything you need to know to get started.
With eCommerce and online shopping growing at a whopping, there’s never been a more important time to talk about planning the routes that deliver the goods to your customers.
So, grab a coffee and let’s get started.
What is Route Planning (and Why Does it Matter)?
While there’s any number of definitions of Route Planning out there, at SmartRoutes, we think it can be easily defined as
“the process of devising which order to best serve each waypoint or stop on any given route.”
While some definitions include the ‘shortest’ way to serve any number of given stops, this isn’t always necessarily true. For instance, you may need to serve different stops at different times or visit a further away to make space for a collection later along the route.
Route Planning is therefore the process of examining your needs, and devising the route to travel based, whilst taking into account all of the specific requirements associated with that route.
When speaking about the ‘shortest’ or ‘most efficient’ route, what is being referred to is Route Optimisation.
Route Optimisation is the process of inputting any given number of stops or waypoints, and using computational algorithms to find the quickest way to serve each stop. This certainly plays a large role in Route Planning (and we will discuss later in this guide), but it is important to note that it does not account for the other factors that need to be considered in Route Planning.
The History of Route Planning
The truth is, people have been planning routes for thousands of years. If we go back even a recent 1,400 years, we have perhaps the first example of people planning routes for the purposes of doing business.
The Silk Road
Early travellers along the Silk road would have moved goods from waypoint-to-waypoint along the road with many. The Silk road trade routes linked the Far East and Europe, connecting at various points with other routes taking trade to and from India. Even looking at the image below, you can see that those travelling along the route would have needed to make decisions about the course they took.
As you can see from this picture of the Silk Road, route planning has been a consideration for those transporting goods between the Roman Empire and China
The late 19th century is another point in time at which Route Planning became more intricate for businesses. In both Europe and the United States, the surge of industry was accompanied by rapid population growth, and increased business enterprise. Simultaneously, densely populated urban centres ensured that much greater volumes of goods needed to be distributed within smaller geographic areas.
The influx of people to cities, newly designed road infrastructures, and later the first mass-production of motor cars brought about an all too familiar challenge: Congestion.
It was during this period that Baron Haussmann, became the greatest of the planners on a grand scale, advocating straight arterial boulevards, advantageous vistas, and a symmetry of squares and radiating roads. The resulting urban form was widely emulated throughout the rest of continental Europe. While he is often credited with the beautification of European cities, for those of us that have an interest in logistics, his greatest fete was ‘efficient transportation of goods as well as the rapid mobilization of military troops’.
As a result of these new, interlinking road networks, this period would see urban traders employ the first dedicated ‘Route Planners’. With machines creating products at a rate unlike anything before, dispatching it to customers needed to be as efficient as possible.
The Industrial Revolution and Urban Expansion gave rise to more goods being transported within dense road networks
21st Century Trade
The 21st century would see rapid advancements in digital technologies and bring the world closer together through the medium of the internet.
With everything available at consumers fingertips, the opportunity to sell products online meant that direct-to-consumer trade increased.
Today, there is not a single nation that is completely self-sufficient. This means that goods are transported across the world at a scale unlike anything we’ve seen before. For consumers today, the internet has also increased expectations of convenience. With the onset of the Coronavirus in 2019, this has meant that consumers are ordering goods to be delivered to their home in greater numbers than ever before. According to a UN study, despite falling consumer spending, online shopping increased by 6 to 10 percent across most product categories.
What has emerged as one of the greatest challenges for businesses in recent years, is referred to as the ‘last-mile logistics challenge’.
With smaller volumes of goods being delivered to a greater number of individual houses, route planning has become a greater challenge and taken on much greater importance for many businesses.
If your business is currently experiencing a last-mile logistics challenge, read on to learn more about how Route Planning can help you overcome it.
A combination of increased Online Shopping & Direct-to-Consumer Deliveries has meant routes with more stops for drivers. More stops equals more complex routes.
Terms to Know
Planning Routes based upon various factors in order to reach each waypoint in the most efficient way, whilst taking into account specific requirements for each stop.
The process of using programmatic algorithms to find the most efficient way of serving each stop on a route. For example, if you are tasked with devising a route manually for 10 stops, there are 1,023 ways of creating that route. Of course, it would be obvious which would be some of the better ways, but it is still susceptible to human error
By leaving Route Optimisation to technology, you simply input your stops and it can run all of these possibilities in seconds. You are then presented with the most efficient way
Vehicle Routing Problem (VRP)
The Vehicle Routing Problem is what the above route optimisation algorithm solves for. As the name suggests, it is the problem of having a given number of stops, and needing a way to find the optimal route for the vehicle to travel to each one.
Travelling Salesman Problem (TSP)
The Travelling Salesman Problem also refers to the challenge of devising the shortest route for a person to travel in order to visit a given number of stops. This is the most common name for the problem and is rooted in the field of computer science as one of the oldest algorithmic problems.
5 Examples of Route Planning for Businesses
B2B and B2C (Direct-to-Consumer)
As we’ve already mentioned, more goods are being transported than ever before. Whether you are a B2B fresh food wholesaler delivering to restaurants, or you are delivering your newspapers directly to readers homes, you’ll want to make sure that you are doing it in the best way possible.
This means that you’ll likely want to use a dedicated Route Planning Solution to ensure you’re making the most of your fleet and drivers.
These are just a sample of the business use cases for Route Planning.
New Contract for a Courier & 3PL Business
For those in the Courier and 3PL industry, delivering goods is the name of the game. Route planning in logistics is one of the most important tasks there is.
Now consider this:
A large computer hardware company has opened a tender for a contract to deliver 1,000 printers, per week to customers throughout a specific region.
In order to bid for the contract, our Courier Business will need to understand how many vehicles and drivers would be needed, what capacity each van could hold and how long it would take to serve the stops. This would all help to understand the cost involved in completing the deliveries.
By planning a sample of the routes, they would be able to know how much it would cost the company on an ongoing basis, and this would serve to inform their quoted price for the contract.
You can find a real-life example of a Courier Business using Route Planning here.
This is what’s referred to as ’inside-delivery’.
For many businesses, delivering their own products is paramount to their success. It means that they have full control over the delivery experience for the customer and ensures that their goods are cared for in-transit by their own team.
This is what’s referred to as ’inside-delivery’.
An example of a business completing isinde delivery would be a food business delivering high-end baked goods direct to consumers for special occasions. The fragile nature of goods means that they need to maintain control of the delivery service. As delivery is not the main focus of the business however, it makes sense that they would want to plan their routes in the most efficient way possible in order to focus on their product.
You can find a real-life example of a direct-to-consumer Food Business using Route Planning here
In-house delivery for a B2B business.
Similarly to the previous example, a business that produces their own goods for other businesses may rely on Route Planning as part of a successful delivery operation.
An example of this could be a food wholesaler delivering produce to grocery stores. Naturally, order management ties into the planning process as stores will only order when stock runs low. This results in routes changing constantly and a need to plan different routes on a daily basis.
Agri-supplies business delivering animal feed to farms. (Link Case Study)
As we’ve referred to throughout, planning routes for your business is made difficult by the wide array of factors that can play a role in your plans. This is very much the case when it comes to farm deliveries. Farms can often have addresses attached to nearby houses, have limited access to large vehicles, and specific time at which their yards are a hive of activity.
As a result, Route Planning in the Agri & Dairy sector can pose unique challenges.
You can find a real-life example of an Agri Business using Route Planning here.
How do you plan a route for your business?
With Route Planning more important for businesses than ever before, we’re going to take you through a few routing optimisation solutions that you can use. Whether you’ve begun a home-delivery service for a new online sales channel, or you’re planning routes for 20 vehicles at a grocery chain, there’s a solution for you.
So let’s take a look
Perhaps the route planner that we’re all most familiar with, Google Maps has been around for over 15 years. In that time, it has evolved from a basic desktop solution to a fantastic mobile app that can help you navigate anywhere in a few short seconds.
The beauty of Google Maps is that it is robust, easy-to-use, and of course, free.
Google Maps also gives you the ability to send your planned routes from your desktop to your mobile app, which can be useful for planning with flexibility.
It does, however, have its limitations.
The biggest one is that it limits you to 10 waypoints or stops per route, and all data must be entered manually. The Google Route Planner is really designed for once-off journeys as opposed to being a commercial tool.
For those that do infrequent, small capacity routes, this may not be a problem.
Screenshot of Google Maps multi stop route on a desktop computer screen
RouteXL solves for the main problem with Google Maps:
1. the limit on the number of stops to 10
2. having to input stops individually.
The free version of RouteXL allows users to plan routes with up to 20 stops for free. It also allows users to copy and paste addresses in bulk, saving time on manually inputting each one like Google Maps.
Of course, it is likely that you will have to plan routes with more than 20 stops for your business and RouteXL offer competitive prices for daily and monthly plans of 100 and 200 stops per route.
However, like Google Maps, it also has its limitations when it comes to planning routes for your business.
The most important, is that it does not offer a mobile app and routes must be printed before embarking on a journey. While this might not be a problem if you and your drivers are familiar with their routes and geographic areas, it can be a pain for drivers to manually route each stop on their Google Maps or Waze app throughout the day.
If you run infrequent routes with 20+ stops, RouteXL’s reasonable daily pricing may just be the answer for you.
A screenshot of the RouteXL solution on a desktop computer screen
The difference between the previous two route planners and SmartRoutes in simple;
They are designed for personal use, not commercial. These solutions are great if you are heading off on a road trip, or even if you have a need to do deliveries occasionally.
But if you’re frequently running deliveries, you’re going to want to use a tool that is designed with business in mind and saves you precious time and money.
SmartRoutes is a dedicated Delivery Route Planner, designed to make planning, optimising and monitoring your deliveries a piece of cake. The solution combines a Desktop-based Route Planner and a Mobile Driver App that allows you to plan unlimited routes, with unlimited stops.
Regardless of how many vehicles and drivers you have available to you on any given day, a dedicated commercial route planner will optimise for the best way to complete all of your deliveries
Drivers can also view their routes on a dedicated mobile app, navigate to each waypoint, and have the ability to reschedule and re-optimise their routes as necessary throughout the day. By unifying all of your employees when it comes to your logistics operations, you’ll help make them happier and more efficient.
A screenshot of the RouteXL solution on a desktop computer screen
A screenshot of the RouteXL solution on a desktop computer screen
Why is Route Planning so important?
Saving Time & Reducing Costs
No matter what line of business you're in, you need to keep an eye on your bottom line.
If your business has one vehicle or one hundred, it can be one of the most expensive assets to run and maintain. With a dedicated route planner, your business can save up to 33% on the cost of operating your fleet. Using optimised routes, mileage can be reduced by up to 50% over the course of a year.
The knock on effects of these savings can have even wider impacts for your business. Reduced fuel consumption, maintenance and driver overtime can quickly see your business realising the benefits of a route planner.
Tip: It can be useful to run a simple cost/benefit analysis before and after using a Route Planner for your business. Looking at weekly mileage, fuel consumption and driver overtime will quickly indicate the savings your business can realise.
Consumers are more demanding than ever before and they expect a 5-star customer experience to be part of any purchase.
As Amazon have tightened their grip on the online retail space in recent years, they have incorporated the ‘Delivery Experience’ into the service. Turning to the ‘gig economy’ model with Amazon Flex and hiring drivers to deliver parcels directly to customers' own vehicles, they have effectively removed the need for 3PL companies. This has also given them greater control over the experience provided at the point-of-delivery.
By using a Route Planner for your own business, you can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Amazon by providing a great experience for your customers. Just some of the features that can drive this are:
In the not so distant past, when you ordered something to be delivered, it was a simple waiting game. (Who misses that element of surprise when something you’d forgot you’d ordered arrived unexpectedly?)
Today, however, customers expect to be kept informed on their delivery status. A dedicated Route Planner can help to incorporate this as part of the delivery experience in order for businesses to compete with the power of Amazon.
Tip: A dedicated Route Planner gives you the ability to include details such as preferred drop location, customer details, and extra notes for the delivery driver on each stop. Giving the driver as much detail as possible helps them to provide that 5-star final touch that leaves a lasting impression of your business.
Successfully bringing your delivery operations ‘in-house’
If you have products to deliver, that’s a good sign.
You’ve worked hard to establish your business and your reputation and you are being rewarded for your efforts in sales.
At this point, the last thing you want is for the final step in the customer journey to spoil the hard work. That’s why many businesses opt to bring their deliveries ‘in-house’ rather than outsource to a third-party. With the popularity of online shopping growing, so too has the rise in lost, stolen and damaged packages.
In fact, research from the U.K. between 2016 and 2019 shows a 22% increase in package theft.
Not only do damaged and lost parcels pose a risk to your business's reputation, but it can also hit your pocket should you be unfortunate enough to be hit by a few losses and damages in a short timeframe.
A Route Planner allows your business to bring your delivery operation in-house and take control of your deliveries. Not only does this give you the piece of mind that your products are delivered safely, but it also allows you to tailor the experience that we mentioned in the last tip.
Branded vehicles and a smiling delivery driver can make all the difference when it comes to turning a once off customer into a repeat customer. Having the control over your delivery operation gives you that extra edge over a drop and run courier driver.
Improving Productivity & Employee Satisfaction
When it comes to operating a delivery service, there can be a lot to juggle for your employees. Even in a small business, there can be quite a few stakeholders involved:
Keeping everything running smoothly is the key to reducing stress for everyone. Using a Route Planner can unify your entire business when it comes to your deliveries.
Drivers can access their routes and use navigation from their mobile while on the road. This eliminates the need for roadside routing and optimised routes mean less time spent on the road.
The result is less stress and more free time.
Happy drivers will lead to a better delivery experience and all round benefits for your business.
Similarly, a Route Planner can give your logistics, admin and support staff far more visibility and control over deliveries. From time saved creating routes and optimising them, to giving support staff real-time ETA’s that can be passed onto enquiring customers, a dedicated routing solution can make everything tick.
5 Tips on how to plan a route
When planning routes for your business, there are a few things you can do from the outset that will help to ensure successful deliveries.
By preparing a solid process from the outset, you can make your route planning a success. We look at some of the things to consider below:
Ensure you have a process for attaining clean & accurate addresses from customers.
Your route plan will only be as good as the addresses and data that you use.
Let us explain.
Every address has 2 obvious identifying factors:
1. The named address
2. The Postcode
Nine times out of ten, a Postcode will get your delivery to the customer. After all, every address has only one unique code.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Oftentimes you will find that customers have omitted a postcode when making a purchase online. When you go to look for the address, you can run into some problems.
For example, some rural addresses have a number of houses within one yard and it can leave the driver with a parcel in their arms and scratching their head.
This can lead to drivers stressing on the job and losing value time on a stop
For this reason, it is wise to set postcodes as required fields on your shopping cart or order form, and also give them a field to add any specific instructions for the driver (e.g concealed entrances, gate passcodes, angry dogs etc.).
Pro Tip: If you're running large, multi-stop routes, it will really help to ensure that you have a robust ‘address validation workflow’. This is basically a hierarchy of how your route planner looks for addresses when routing. You can learn more about how SmartRoutes handles address validation here.
Establish a process of communicating with drivers effectively.
Route Planning is not a ‘static exercise’.
As is the nature of deliveries, things change from minute to minute. For instance, an order for a perishable foodstuff needs to be refrigerated upon arrival.
But what if the customer calls the office to say they’ve unexpectedly been called to collect their kid from school?
Routes will need to be rescheduled and re-optimised through the working day. Most dedicated route planners will allow for this both on the depot/office side and on the driver side.
But ensuring that any changes to plans are communicated to drivers is critical. The problem is, you don’t want to distract drivers while they are on the road. Similarly, you don’t want drivers to have to spend their time calling the office to find out why a customer might not be there to accept delivery as agreed.
There is a whole host of ways for drivers to quickly communicate information to the office without having to make calls from the roadside.
Another challenge for companies is communicating the actual route to drivers in advance. Having drivers come to the office in the morning to find out where their route will take them can be avoided by having an automated solution to send the routes to the drivers the night before. This has the benefit of allowing drivers to plan breaks, and allow them to begin loading their vehicle without any delays in the morning.
Pro Tip: A dedicated route planning software like SmartRoutes will allow you to send routes directly to driver mobile apps, ready for the day ahead.
The same app will allow drivers to feed POD’s (Proof-of-Delivery) and undeliverables back to the office in real-time on the road at the touch of a button. As a consequence, your office staff can then communicate in a timely and honest way when dealing with customer queries.
Communicate your planned ETA’s to customers.
We’ve just touched on it, but communication is the key to successful deliveries.
When planning routes for a business, a great way to increase customer confidence and satisfaction is by communicating the planned ETA directly to them.
As you optimise your routes, you will have a good estimate as to what time you or your driver will drop off a parcel.
This is not only valuable information for you, but also for your customer
By communicating your planned ETA to customers, they can also make plans to be present to accept delivery or notify you if they won’t. By incorporating these communications into your business, you have the ability to build up a rapport with your customer and show that you're willing to go the extra-mile to ensure they get their delivery.
Pro Tip: When using a delivery route planner, make use of automated SMS and Email notifications to communicate ETA’s to customers. By automating this process, you don’t need to invest any additional human resources but can really improve customer satisfaction.
Assign drivers to geographic territories they’re familiar with to leverage ‘Driver Knowledge’.
When it comes to any business, your employees are your greatest asset.
When it comes to a business that operates a delivery service, your drivers are the key to your success.
If you have a number of drivers working as part of your team, they will continually build up route and customer knowledge over time. Avoiding busy commuter bottlenecks at certain times, for example, is the kind of thing they learn pretty quickly.
Similarly, they can also get to know your customers in specific geographic areas over time and cement your business relationship with them. In fact, research by McCarron coates in 2020 found that more than half of the UK public (57%) say their attitude to delivery drivers and couriers has become more positive.
When planning routes for a business, assigning drivers to specific territories can have a remarkable effect on customer loyalty over time. Leveraging off the newfound respect for delivery drivers amongst the public will do your business no harm at all.
Pro Tip: Dedicated Delivery Route Planners allow you to allocate drivers to specific geographical territories. This helps to familiarise the driver with their route and build up relationships with repeat customers.
Use the correct VRP solution for your business needs.
Earlier in this post, we looked at 3 different solutions you can use to plan routes for your business. Each one has its limitations but it is important to identify what exactly you need from your route planner from the outset.
If you only deliver to 10 addresses once per week, you will probably find everything you need in Google Maps. As the largest tech company in the world, they’ve built a solution that you can rely on to do exactly what it says it does. You’re likely to already be familiar with the solution too which is a bonus.
But if you’re doing deliveries everyday, it’s definitely worth looking to a dedicated delivery route planner. The time and cost savings can quickly see a positive ROI and it will give you an edge on competitors spending their valuable time on manual routing. The additional features such as customer notifications, proof-of-delivery and live vehicle tracking can also bring your business to the next level and leave customers with a great experience.
Pro Tip: If you’re unsure about what solution is best for your business, run a simple test. Outline your current delivery process and try to analyse how much time and resources go into planning over a week. Next, try using Google Maps for a week and do the same exercise. Finally, sign-up for a 7-day free trial of SmartRoutes Delivery Route Planner and see which solution worked best for you.
Just some of the businesses that use use route planning software
Resources for planning your routes
At SmartRoutes, we’ve put together a list of FAQ’s all about route planning, route optimisation, and our own solution. Feel free to check it out to learn a bit more:
SmartRoutes Route Planning Spreadsheet Template
We offer the ability to plan your routes on a simple excel/CSV file and upload it directly to our route planner. One click of the button and you have an optimised route!
The route planner spreadsheet will allow you to add as much (or as little as just a postcode) to each stop.
If you want to automate this process from an online store, feel free to get in touch and we’ll help you get setup. Feel free to download our free template below in the meantime
RouteXL is a great tool to get planning routes of up to 20 stops in a matter of seconds. You can find it below:
The tried and trusted. If you’re looking to quickly plan a route of up to 10 stops, click on the link below:
If your business is handling deliveries in any capacity, route planning should definitely be in your plans.
This guide should help you to get started with route planning and help you to understand what type of solution is right for you.
Like any other part of your business operations, planning and executing go hand in hand. Using a tool that not only helps you to plan your routes, but also execute deliveries or visits in the most efficient way will see wider benefits for your business.