Urban Logistics and Retailing

At the start of May, the details of the Routledge Handbook of Urban Logistics was published. The Handbook itself will be available for pre-order from early June with formal publication on June 23, 2023.

I was happy to contribute a chapter on Urban Logistics and Retailing. The Routledge Handbook of Urban Logistics offers an overview of urban and city logistics. The 29 chapters examine five topic areas reflecting the diverse nature of current research and thinking in urban logistics: transport modes, urban logistics sectors, technical analysis, policy, and sustainability.

My chapter starts from a recognition that the importance of supply chains has become more generally recognised by businesses, the public and the media in recent years, partly due to major external shocks.  The implications of the UK’s Brexit referendum result are now being felt more clearly, most notably in the introduction of friction (paperwork, checking, borders) into supply chains.  As predicted by many supply chain operators, disruption to the supply of products has been the consequence The COVID-19 pandemic produced extreme volatility in demand and supply leading to issues around panic-buying, stockholding, and transport availability.  Product shortages became more common and global supply chains have continued to be adversely affected by the pandemic.  The inter-relationships between production, consumption, retailing and distribution have become more strained, generating additional disruption and costs. This has been further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine resulting in supply problems and price spikes in energy, including fuel, further affecting supply and, via price increases, demand.  For many, the awareness of the potential fragility of supply chains has thus risen sharply, as has the understanding of our corporate and personal reliance upon them.

For retailers, their supply chain has become a key component of their operations.  Historically reliant on producers and distributors, retailers were unable to easily provide the range, availability and prices required for their customers.  They reacted to that over time by both, when legally permitted, taking more direct control of supply, and also by using their data and knowledge of consumer demand, and subsequently scale, to re-organise supply chains.  This is evident across most sectors of retailing.  Retailers’ aim has been to produce a more efficient and effective supply of products to stores and customers and thus enhance the customer experience and in turn increase sales, satisfaction and consumer loyalty.  This has resulted in a transformation of approach and operations in retailing, and especially in their supply chains.

This supply chain revolution has gone hand in hand with other retail changes.  In many sectors stores have increased in size and relocated away from central urban areas and on to decentralised retail parks and shopping centres.  Purpose built out-of-town retailing has considerable operating advantages, including simpler, separated, efficient logistics supply.  In the last two decades, there has been a further major structural change in the retail sector.  The rise in the use of the internet and online shopping, to a point where it is now c25% of all sales in the UK, has altered the channels of distribution, but has also generated new issues, including that of the scale of ‘returns’ of unwanted or unsuitable products, especially in the fashion sector. 

Retail stores have historically been a key part of major urban centres.  Recent trends of decentralisation and online retailing combined with cost pressures of operating in such sites (including logistics issues) has seen central urban retailing come under increased pressure.  Previously the focal point of supply for many, urban stores are still significant, but their operations have become more marginal in many instances.  For those that remain, pressures on their logistics have also grown.  The transport issues of urban areas in particular have come more into focus and so urban retail logistics has become more significant.

Congestion and costs have become major issues for the supply of product.  The environmental impact of human activity has been increasingly recognised.  Retailers, as a focal point in the distribution of products to consumers, have been increasingly concerned over environmental sustainability.  This is not all problematic, as within their own operations, there can be clear commercial benefits to actions, as for example in packaging and transport reduction.  Efficient supply chains also hold less stock in the main, reducing wastage.  However, sectors built on high short-term demands (and often at the cheapest possible cost) are prone to extractive models and to questions over practices (e.g., labour) and environmental sustainability.  A system built on high levels of over-ordering and returns is environmentally questionable.  In urban areas, traffic congestion and pollution have become human health issues.  The very visibility of retail supply has made them a target for activists, as seen in recent UK demonstrations against fossil fuel and milk by Extinction Rebellion and Animal Rebellion.  Over the last two decades or more there has thus been increased questioning of how our retail supply systems operate, for whose benefit and with what adverse affects.

Retailing logistics has developed into a highly sophisticated operation over this period, attempting to match supply and demand whilst reducing costs and operating on a global basis.  Pressures on urban systems and complications of urban delivery to stores, linked to the development of online sales and omni-channel retailing have increased and added costs and complexity.  Concerns over the environmental impact of retail logistics and major recent disruptions to supply chains (such as Brexit, COVID-19 and capital infrastructure and labour shortages) have further pressured retail systems.  Retail logistics generally and urban retail logistics specifically have thus begun to be re-assessed.

My chapter considers these issues.  It begins with a review of logistics and supply chain management and a focus on retail logistics and supply chains.  This is followed by a consideration of the main practical issues that have emerged in recent years. The final section provides a consideration of the implications of these recent changes and trends, with a focus on the future shape of urban retail logistics.

A pre-print version of my chapter will be available from the University Repository in the near future.

The slide show below provides details of all the chapters and the book (currently only in hardback and targeted at a reference market) is available from the publishers and other bookstores (use local bookshops preferably)


Monios J, Budd L, Ison S (2023) (Editors) The Routledge Handbook of Urban Logistics. Routledge. ISBN 9781032148571

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Books, City Centres, Congestion, Consumers, LEZ, Logistics, LTN, Relationships, Retailers, Retailing, Spatial Planning, Suppliers, Supply Chains, Sustainability, Town Centres, Towns, Urban and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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