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September 16, 2020

When it comes to small businesses, drones deliver

  • , By the numbers
  • , Drone delivery
  • , Report
  • , United States

How Wing drone delivery is helping one Virginia coffee shop cope with the COVID-19 shutdown.

Luke and Cassie Brugh missed the face-to-face interaction, the sound of keyboards tapping and the Christiansburg (Va.) regulars who would pop into their coffee shop each morning.
Like many small business owners, the Brughs (pronounced “brew”) were forced to close their doors to walk-in customers as the COVID-19 outbreak reached Southwest Virginia. The store grew quiet, sales slumped and times got tough.

“It just felt like, for us, everything was on the up, we were getting toward the busy time of the year and it was like the chair got kicked out from under us,” Luke said. “Everything just kind of came to a screeching halt real quick.”

That’s when Brugh adopted drone delivery as a way to continue reaching customers.

Today, very few businesses have this option. But a recent study by Virginia Tech, in partnership with Wing, looked at the impact the technology could have as the availability of drone delivery continues to expand over the coming years. The study modeled the effect that would have on various metropolitan areas within 5 years of launch, finding that if drone delivery was offered at scale some restaurants could see sales increase by as much as 250%.

“As a business, we’re always trying to find new ways to reach our customers that make sense and fits into our business model,” Luke said. “Drone delivery does that because it helps us meet our quality standards. Somebody is able to place an order on their phone in the app, and within 10 minutes it’s at their house.”

Drone deliveries weren’t the silver bullet to resolve Brugh’ struggles during the pandemic — but they helped.

Over the past several months, Luke said he has sold about twice as much cold brew coffee via drone delivery than he usually sold in store before the lockdown.

“It came in at a perfect time for us, and helped relieve some of that financial burden,” he added. Luke and Cassie have an innovative streak. They try not to call their hotspot a coffee shop. “Coffee lab,” reads the sign in front of the store.

They stay up to speed on new coffee drinks, and invent some of their own (like the cold brew and lemonade concoction they call a Jason Palmer). Even their to-go lids were thoughtfully selected; they include an additional opening in the center so customers can smell the coffee while they drink.

“Our goal is to try to experiment with stuff and offer people new things that they may not have tried before,” Luke said.

When the Brughs had to close the store to the public, they launched mobile ordering and curbside pickup. They got more creative with social media marketing, and increased online sales.

Drone delivery was a natural next step.

The business is still just getting started with Wing’s service, but its experience so far aligns with the findings by Virginia Tech’s researchers.

The study suggests within 5 years of adopting drone delivery at scale, participating limited-service restaurants could generate up to $284,000 per year in new sales, while full-service restaurants could generate $145,000 and retail businesses $208,000.

Meanwhile, the technology could support up to 66,000 people per metropolitan area who lack access to a vehicle (up to 6.6% of residents), and help up to 22,000 people with transportation challenges obtain and adhere to their prescription medication.

“Our findings suggest that drone delivery can improve the lives of consumers by expanding access to services, reducing unnecessary travel and saving time,” the report concludes.

Things still aren’t totally back to normal inside Brugh Coffee, but they’re starting to get there. Customers can now come inside to place to-go orders through a plexiglass shield. The business will continue the partnership with Wing as it reopens, and Luke says he looks forward to serving customers who have grown accustomed to this new technology.

“It’s been nice during COVID-19, but I think it’s a technology people will realize that they like having, that’s useful to them,” he said. “I think that drone delivery is just something that’s going to be around for the long haul.”

More from the Virginia Tech Report

“Our findings suggest that drone delivery can improve the lives of consumers by expanding access to services, reducing unnecessary travel and saving time. The benefits are pronounced for those who face mobility challenges or live in areas underserved by other transportation options. Drone delivery benefits local businesses by increasing their customer reach, improving their response times and increasing their sales, potentially at a lower cost than alternative delivery models. Finally, drone delivery benefits communities by reducing vehicle traffic, CO2 emissions and road accidents, as well as improving access to healthy foods, medicine, and other essential supplies that support long-term health outcomes.”

Read the full report here.