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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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US presidential debate: Hillary Clinton might have triumphed over Donald Trump but does it really matter?

The former secretary of state landed some solid blows on the tycoon but in the age of post-truth politics what matters more is how people feel.

There is a phrase that has become nearly ubiquitous, a sort of bitterly ironic catchphrase for journalists covering the 2016 presidential election in general – and Donald Trump in particular – and it is this: “lol nothing matters”.

Its glib boys-on-the-bus nihilism conceals a deeper truth. This campaign has degraded to the point at which truth and lies have become largely interchangeable. What is real matters less now than what people feel.

Hillary Clinton won most of the exchanges in the first presidential debate Monday night. The clash was at times oddly stilted, even boring; early skirmishers, the two opponents spent much of the first half of the debate warily circling, rather than engaging. The next debate will almost certainly make much better television.

But once she hit her stride the former secretary of state landed some solid blows on Trump over his preposterous pursuit of the “birther” conspiracy theory, and pressed him hard over his refusal to release his tax returns – something every presidential candidate for half a century has done – and his lie about not being able to do so while under an "audit". (No such prevention exists, of course, but: lol nothing matters.)

In the key part of that exchange, Clinton said: “So you’ve got to ask yourself, why won’t he release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks,” she said, in probably her best moment of the night.

“Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” she continued, pressing home her advantage.

At which point, Trump leaned into the microphone, not to object, but simply to petulantly interject: “That makes me smart.” Clinton had clearly got under his skin.

Not every Clinton line landed, mind. A particularly painful example: early in the debate, and then again later, she tried to coin the agonizingly cringeworthy phrase “Trumped-up trickle-down,” causing a collective wince from the Twitterati.

But many of the things Trump said were obvious, even lazy, lies. When Clinton took him to task for saying that climate change was “a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese”, Trump responded “I did not, I did not, I do not say that,” despite the fact that he hadn't even bothered to delete a tweet by him from 2012 saying literally just that. When Clinton said that Trump had at first supported the invasion of Iraq – which he did – he flatly denied it. 

At other times, he was simply incoherent or so infuriatingly vague as to be completely adrift from meaning.

It was telling, though, that Clinton called several times for “fact-checkers” to get on top of Trump's delusional ramblings and hold him accountable. CNN's post-debate poll gave the victory to Clinton, 62 percent to 27 percent – a rout. But CNN's audience skews Democratic by ten points. Clinton can call for fact-checkers as much as she likes, but only a fraction of a percentage of viewers, and only a minescule fraction of a fraction of Trump-leaning viewers, will probably ever seek out or even recognise that kind of fact-checking as legitimate.

So what happens next? The truth is we don't know at all. None of us know. It has become bleakly popular to say that we now live in a “post-truth” era, but in reality it is more that truth has become balkanized. Social media has made it possible for people to live in their own silo of separate truth.

Towards the end, Clinton channelled Fox News's Megyn Kelly, pressing Trump on his opinions towards women – quoting that he had called them “slobs” and “fat pigs”. To anyone for whom Trump's campaign is transparently ludicrous and misogynistic to the core – which is to say, pretty much my social and social media circle, and, let's face it, if you're reading this article, most likely yours as well – this was a win.

But that echo will only ring true to the political operatives, journalists, or people in our silo, who share a certain set of values.

This election is teaching us that we are no longer a representative sample. Trump – Donald Trump – after a two-year tidal wave of appalling bigotry, despite being a joke to you and to everyone you break bread with, went into Monday's debate with Hillary Clinton on Monday afternoon in a virtual tie. A virtual tie! Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton! Think, for a second, how off-piste that means we now are.

Where are most people now getting their information from? A bunch of places, all of them totally diffuse, much of it from what their friends, sociopolitical and geographic peer group share with them on social media. It's this catastrophic diffusion of truth which has brought us here. Some of the collapse of authoritative media was absolutely the media's fault. Some of it was due to technological and social changes that were out of anyone's control.

But it has led us to this place: where lol nothing matters.

 

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.