Missing presents and parcels in bins: why are private delivery firms so terrible?

Maybe we just get the service we’re willing to pay for.

Last summer, a friend living in Palestine wanted to send us a wedding present. She placed an order on a florist's website, the florist gave the flowers to a private delivery firm, the delivery firm gave them to a driver, and the driver got them as far as our front door. No one was in. So he put them back in his van and took them back to the depot, where they promptly died. Three days later, after waiting in specially, I took delivery of a large and expensive box of compost. Thanks to the magic of the internet, it is now possible to send flowers in London all the way from Gaza, yet delivery companies remain flummoxed by the impenetrable barrier of a locked front door.

Earlier this year, a different delivery firm was bringing me a new phone and, not wanting to go through this rigmarole again, I asked for it to be delivered to my office. It wasn’t. At the appointed hour, the whizzy online tracking service unilaterally decided I’d rejected the delivery. That evening found me in a windswept industrial estate car park wearing a high visibility jacket, attempting to explain that the reason I didn't have a utility bill proving I lived at the delivery address was because I don't live in my office.

"Don't antagonise them," whispered the man in the queue behind me. He was clearly an old hand: he’d brought his own high-visibility jacket.

With an estimated 10 per cent of Britain’s retail spending now spent online, delivery firms like Yodel, CityLink and DPD are playing an increasingly prominent role in our lives. And yet they are, as MoneySavingExpert's Martin Lewis succinctly described them recently, "crap". Everyone has a story: of parcels left in bins or thrown over walls, or automated phone lines that cheerfully tell you your package has already been delivered when it quite obviously hasn’t.

The public irritation seemed to peak over Christmas, when the papers were festooned with stories of presents going missing or arriving sometime around 29 December. When one firm failed to deliver to Labour's consumer affairs spokesman Ian Murray, he was told it was because his Edinburgh constituency office didn't actually exist. Later, the firm issued a clarification, blaming the fact that "Scotland isn't part of the UK".

It’s hard to think of another industry where you can so regularly fail to provide the service you’re contracted for. Taxi drivers don’t drop you three miles from your destination. Any restaurant that intermittently announced that the chef couldn't find the ingredients, so you'll have to cook the meal yourself, wouldn’t last five minutes. Yet private delivery firms, apparently, thrive.

The firms in question maintain that the vast majority of deliveries are, in fact, successful. Yodel says it delivers 92 per cent of its parcels first time. DPD goes further, claiming that the success rate for parcels delivered using its ‘Predict’ service – the online tracking thingammy – is 97 per cent.

It’s possible a sort of confirmation bias is at work here: that we forget the nine deliveries that worked perfectly, while remembering the one that ruined our day. More likely, though, the figures are misleading. When a parcel is stuffed inside a wheelie bin, or chucked unceremoniously over a back fence, it has, as far as the driver is concerned, been delivered. The same can be said of deliveries expected by 24 December that turn up sometime in mid-February. As long as it’s a first attempt, that’s a success. Big tick. Job done.

So, let's accept the premise that delivery firms are, quite often, not very good at actually delivering stuff. The obvious question is why.

One answer is simply that we're expecting too much. When a driver knocks at an empty house, they have the choice of leaving a parcel somewhere out of sight, where it might get damaged or nicked; or of taking it back to the depot, which is a pain for all concerned. Either option will make a lot of people unhappy quite a lot of the time, and result in angry front page stories in the Independent. The poor driver can't win.

This is true, as far as it goes. But it doesn't explain those incidents in which the firm claims a package has been rejected, without making any attempt at delivering. Nor does it explain the vexingly common phenomenon in which drivers post "sorry you were out" notes through letterboxes, without actually bothering to check. More than one person tells me they've confronted a driver as he was doing this: in each case, he rather sheepishly confessed he didn't actually have their parcel at all.

In fact, there might be a structural reason why delivery firms are so often rubbish:  they're accountable to the wrong people. When you order something online, you don't pick who delivers it, the retailer does. As a result, you can't boycott the delivery firm; neither are they the ones liable to compensate you if they screw up. There’s not enough payback for failure.

To make matters worse, many of these firms rely on self-employed drivers (this is particularly so at peak times such as Christmas, but seems to be true all year round). These guys are expected to do something like 100 drops a day, and are paid by the delivery. Leave aside the fact they're even less accountable to you than their employer is, and consider how this'll influence their behaviour. They have every incentive to prioritise easy deliveries, and no incentive whatever to care about you. If you're slow to the door; if it's difficult to park; if they forget to collect your parcel altogether, then that's just too bad.

Would boycotting online retailers who use these firms change any of this? Eventually, perhaps. But even if the public were willing to give up its home shopping addiction, the lack of transparency regarding which delivery firms a retailer uses would rather blunt the attack.

The bottom line is that delivering parcels is an expensive game. You need a national network of depots and drivers and, ideally, a call centre (all of which might make one ask if we weren’t better off with a single national Post Office). The business is seasonal; the overheads are high. These are not obviously lucrative firms. It’s just possible that the service we get is the one we're willing to pay for.

 

Why is it so hard? Photograph: Getty Images

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit