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Q & A with the Editor

Smart Lockers Now and Beyond the Pandemic

Campus operations of all kinds were severely impacted by the pandemic, as were many of the habits and expectations of students, parents, faculty and staff. Some of those changes, it appears, will outlast the pandemic.

For students, that includes a drastic increase in online shopping, resulting in a drastic increase in the number of packages arriving on campus. For campus operations — including mailrooms, libraries, IT departments and bookstores — that includes the adoption of new technologies for addressing the twin needs for security and contactless delivery, along with the need to deal with increased package volume and the desire to improve the campus experience for students and other stakeholders.

Smart lockers and tracking software were two technologies that have proved to be invaluable during this time. Smart lockers provide contactless delivery of packages, books (from libraries and bookstores), supplies, IT assets (such as laptops and tablets) and other items, while simultaneously cutting down on wait time and providing tracking to and from all points.

Now, as things begin to return to some semblance of normalcy on campuses, the adoption of smart lockers continues.

Spaces4Learning discussed these trends with a team on the front lines of smart locker adoption, the parcel innovation team at Pitney Bowes.

Campus mailroom operations were severely impacted during the 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns and into the first half of 2021. At the same time, the volume of parcels arriving on campus continued to increase. What are some of the factors contributing to this? How have changes in student shopping behavior contributed to the growth?

From small liberal arts colleges to large multi-campus state universities, schools of all kinds were challenged with COVID-19 shutdowns, and their mailroom operations were no exception. Some scrambled to forward packages to students no longer on campus, while many struggled to keep pace with the incredible influx of packages inundating the mail center. It’s no secret that online shopping is on the rise, but during the pandemic e-commerce exploded with 10 years of growth in just three months, and students were a large contributor of that. In 2020 alone students spent $8.6 billion shopping online. Couple that massive number with an increase in care packages sent from home to students quarantined on campus, and it’s easy to see why mail centers struggled to keep pace.

Going forward, the volume of packages arriving on campus appears to be increasing every year. And we know the vast majority of mailrooms are not going to be receiving more staff to deal with this. What are some of the ways campuses can alleviate the stress on their impacted mailrooms and cut down on long lines of students waiting to pick up packages?

According to the Pitney Bowes Parcel Index, annual shipping volumes are projected to increase by 15% by 2024; and when you consider the online shopping habits of college students, campus mail centers will likely see an even greater increase in volume. This increase in volume has already begun to translate to frustrated students and overwhelmed staff. Self-service solutions like smart lockers offer colleges and universities the ability to extend service hours without adding additional staff. They improve the overall campus experience, giving students the flexibility to pick up their packages at their convenience — day or night. Plus, they reduce time spent on manual processes, allowing staff to focus on more pressing needs.

Safety is a huge concern on most campuses now, and it's likely to be a concern for the foreseeable future, in particular with the Delta variant and other variants that are beginning to spread. How do smart lockers help with safety issues?

Personal health and safety have always been a top concern on campus, but even more so post-pandemic. Parental concerns and expectations are heightened making it imperative for campuses to make health and safety a top priority. Long-lines at the mail center, crowded campus bookstores, and even high-traffic libraries make it difficult for schools to ensure social distancing best practices. Smart lockers offer a contactless pick-up alternative for mail, packages, bookstore orders, and library books or media equipment. Some are even leveraging them for returning items in the lost and found to students. The possibilities are endless, and they are a great way to maintain health and safety for everyone on campus.

Mailroom space is at a premium on campuses. Can you explain how smart lockers help and what is involved in their implementation? Is it a lengthy process?

Space anywhere on campus is at a premium, so it’s important to make the most of every inch of real estate. Smart lockers are a great way to help free up crowded mail room space with configurable locker banks that can hold packages of any shape or size — from a small desk lamp to a set of golf clubs and anything in between. When it comes to smart lockers, "one size fits all" does not apply. Pitney Bowes' latest smart locker solutions offer the flexibility to select a configuration that meets your campuses’ specific needs. From turnkey, pre-configured solutions designed with the most common needs in mind to customizable locker configurations designed to meet your specific volume, space, and workflow requirements, we have a solutions for every type of campus. Plus, our team of experts have simplified the implementation process reducing the typical order to install rate from 12+ weeks to as little as 4 weeks or less in many instances.

Bookstore operations have changed dramatically during the pandemic, and some changes are likely to stick to one degree or another. How have smart lockers been used to address these changes?

Research suggests shoppers’ expectations are changing as retail shifts further online during the pandemic. Student on-campus shopping expectations are no different. With a heightened focus on health and safety and an increased need to deliver better campus experiences, many schools are turning to online bookstore shopping models. Some are taking it even further by offering students the opportunity to buy online and pick up from a smart locker, like Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Pitney Bowes worked with them earlier this year to implement smart lockers to deliver a superior bookstore experience. Now students can place their bookstore orders online and pick up books, supplies and more at their convenience with limited person-to-person interaction. The lockers have been such a success that the school is now looking at additional units to leverage for other contactless delivery needs.

IT operations are under no less increased strain than mailrooms. What can smart lockers do for them?

At the start of the pandemic, campus IT officials scrambled to put plans in place to help maintain security while supporting a remote working, teaching, and learning environment. While security has always top of mind when it comes to IT operations, the health and safety of everyone on campus has become an unexpected IT consideration. Smart lockers are a great way to distribute assets — from laptops to media equipment and ID cards and anything in between. They help protect your assets and ensure accountability with safe, secure storage and help maintain campus health with 24/7 contactless pickup options. With many schools across the country still supporting "sometimes remote" employees, smart lockers offer a great way to distribute equipment and supplies to staff at their convenience. Plus, for institutions with multiple campuses, smart lockers offer a secure, self-service pick-up and drop-off point, making the movement of assets between campuses a breeze.

What about campus libraries? How have smart lockers come into play as a result of changes caused by the pandemic?

The pandemic has reshaped campus life, and how students visit the library is no exception. Long gone are the days of socializing at the library or "pulling an all-nighter," but the need for easy access to library books, media assets, and other equipment still remains. Many colleges and universities are implementing smart lockers in the library setting as a convenient, contactless solution to pick up and drop off. Rather than students perusing the library and waiting in a line to check out with a clerk, forward-thinking schools are placing their catalogs online and enabling students to reserve books, assets, and other equipment electronically for self-service pick up from a smart locker. Plus, smart lockers make drop off convenient and easy for students, reducing the number of late or lost library books and assets.

Let’s shift gears and talk about the tracking component. We know accurate tracking is a major concern among campus operations staff. What should campus operations look for in terms of the software component of smart lockers? What about security? And is integration with existing systems a major issue? Can you talk about important features for parcel delivery versus, say, assets distributed by IT to faculty and students, or libraries issuing books to patrons, or bookstores distributing merchandise to customers?

Smart lockers are a great access point, but tracking packages, assets, and other equipment before they’re actually placed in a locker is equally as important. Track and trace software helps simplify the way you track incoming packages and manage assets by establishing end-to-end chain of custody, so you know what came in, who it was for, and when it was routed to its proper destination. Campus officials should look to invest in track-and-trace software that:

  • Is comprehensive, yet easy-to-use
  • Tracks items beyond mail and packages
  • Offers the security they need — either in the cloud or on-premise
  • Adapts and evolves with their needs and requirements

Selecting a track-and-trace software that seamlessly integrates into a smart locker system helps ensure you receive and deliver with ease. When tracking software and smart lockers are combined, they help ensure you have complete, end-to-end visibility of everything moving across their campus from point to point. Together, tracking software and smart lockers become a powerful solution allowing you to track, monitor and deliver with confidence.

Let’s look at the user experience. Is there any kind of learning curve, account creation process or difficulties in acclimatizing users to the new system?

The beauty of smart lockers is they’re sophisticated yet easy-to-use for both the operator and the recipient. Installation is quick, and, with an intuitive user interface, the need for training is limited, ensuring campuses can be up and running in no time. In three simple steps campus mail centers can get packages into recipients’ hands safely and securely.

  • With a simple scan of a barcode, the operator delivers a package to a smart locker, triggering a recipient notification with an access barcode.
  • At their convenience the recipient simply scans their access barcode at the locker and verify their identification.
  • The assigned locker then opens; the recipient grabs their package and goes on their way. No long lines, no restrictive service hours, no lost or misplaced packages.

Smart locker adoption is in its infancy in higher education campuses. Can you talk about what you see for the future?

While the smart locker industry is just taking off in the US, it’s become commonplace across the globe. Many forward-thinking educational institutions have already implemented locker systems and are seeing positive results. By 2022 nearly one-third of all US colleges and universities are expected to have adopted smart locker technology for at least one aspect of the campus experience. Heightened parent, student, and staff expectations along with evolving online shopping habits will likely be the main driver of their adoption on campus in the next five years. As adoption increases, we expect to see campuses expand their smart locker systems beyond the initial install to account for additional use cases — as many of our current higher education clients have already done. We also expect to see new uses and trends like printing shipping labels and sending packages from a smart locker.

Register for an upcoming webinar from Pitney Bowes and Spaces4Learning, New Campus Realities: Meeting Evolving Delivery Demands with Contactless Technology.