–Ben Kwan, Attorney

Ok.  I admit.  I’m too young, no, make that way too young to know how the milk man system of delivery worked.  Was it subscription-based?  Or was there an element of public service to it – where the milk man (or maid!) strolled past every house on the block anticipating that just about everyone was going to need or want milk every couple of days?

Today, I dare say the milkman cometh again, with milk and just about everything else under the sun!  This time, he bears the insignia “Amazon” (and whichever common carrier Amazon employs).  And there’s apparently a patentable improvement on this time-old method of delivery because you may not need to leave any hint or signal that it’s time for your next delivery.  It may end up appearing unsolicited.

It is the talk radio and Web fodder of the day: Amazon’s new patent (U.S. Patent No. 8,615,473) for a “method and system for anticipatory package shipping.” The patent issued on Christmas Eve and the mainstream news outlets have picked up on it this morning.  Specifically, the patent claims a method for using computers to ship goods out into geographical areas without final destinations affixed.

For example, if Amazon’s algorithmic wonks know how many cases of Minnesota-made Pearson’s Nut Goodies are purchased in Evanston, Illinois, during a given week by retailers or consumers, Amazon is going to get that many Nut Goodie cases on delivery trucks that travel those tony streets along Lake Michigan’s shores.  Thus, having anticipated the demand, when an order is actually placed, the product is already on the delivery truck ready for an address label.  The patent outlines timing that anyone could call impeccable: “It is noted that in some embodiments, assignment of a late-selected delivery address to a speculatively shipped package need not take place at a hub, but may instead occur during the ‘last mile’ of delivery (e.g., during transit of a package on a local delivery route.)”

Fig. 1 from the new Amazon Patent provides a schematic for the patented method of delivery.


Amazon’s patent describes the problem this invention solves as the “substantial disadvantage to the virtual storefront,” that “customers cannot receive their merchandise immediately upon purchase, but must instead wait for product to be shipped to them.”

Even more impressive than merely anticipating demand, the patent also covers predictive shipping.  Yes, in the future, stuff is coming off that UPS or FedEx truck for you that you did not even order!  Amazon will be thinking of it before you do in many cases.  But the science won’t be perfect, according to my reading of the patent.

Amazon’s patent contemplates scenarios where products are shipped out to geographical zones where no one ends up placing an order for that particular product.  In many instances, the patent describes, it would be more costly to re-direct or return the product, so the item “may be delivered to a potentially-interested customer as a gift rather than incurring the cost” to return it.  Conceivably, the patent provides, the gift might go to a customer who has expressed interest but not pulled the trigger yet.  So start adding to your wish lists now, people!

All of this makes me wonder whether Amazon will someday anticipate my needs (and wants!) better than I can.  How often do we return home after a busy day and think, “dang, I meant to stop for this or that?”  This could solve that.  What do you think would be waiting out on your step when you return home today if this anticipatory and predictive shipping method were in full force right now?  And for my U.C.C. Article 2 gurus out there – where might the sale of goods law need to adapt to fit this new method Amazon has now patented?