The parcel conundrum

By Andrew Bomford
BBC Radio 4's PM programme


The Royal Mail move to ask people if they mind having parcels delivered to their neighbours is the latest effort to solve a thorny issue. How can people conveniently get parcels delivered when most are at work all day?

It's an experience almost all of us seem to share.

The swift, efficient world of online ordering meets the messy realities of the analogue world we actually live in. And it all seems to grind to a halt.

Richard Wilding is both a professor of logistics and supply chain management at Cranfield University and a victim of the parcel conundrum.

"We were expecting a gift to arrive, and the courier firm told us it had been delivered. We told them we hadn't received anything, and the company said it had been delivered to a hedge. We haven't got a hedge."

Some weeks later the box was discovered, sure enough in a hedge, about half a mile away from his house.

How does this sort of thing happen? Part of the problem seems to be that individual drivers are rarely incentivised to successfully deliver a parcel first time.

Some companies even count a missed-delivery card through the door as a successful delivery when making claims about their performance.

But the missed-delivery problem costs money as well as infuriating customers. In the UK 12% of deliveries fail first time, costing the industry an estimated £1bn in re-deliveries.

For most people it's the frustration of a Royal Mail missed delivery card lying on the doormat. People frequently complain that some postmen deliver them without even knocking in order to save time. The same allegation is made of commercial couriers.

Then there's the occasions when couriers delivering laptops or other valuables leave us waiting around all day before turning up at 17:59.

A trip to the Post Office depot at 7am can be an irksome burden. And some couriers take your item back to warehouses on industrial estates many miles away.

Courier Tony Rudder appreciates the irritation of the customer.

"I've been in myself waiting for a package, and it hasn't turned up. And then I've seen the little note on the floor saying they tried to deliver it. But I've been in all day," says Rudder. "It happens to everyone, even couriers."

But the courier has a defence.

"It's difficult for us too. You turn up at a house and no one's in. So you phone up the company and they try to get in touch with the customer and find out if it's OK to deliver it next door for instance.

"Often they can't get hold of the customer and you're standing there for half an hour or more wasting time."

As with most service industries of course you get what you pay for. Customers paying for premium services can expect to get phone calls chasing them if delivery can't be made.

One company suggested they'd be happy to follow people all over London trying to deliver a parcel as long as the customer paid for it. But most people opt for the cheapest option, or indeed free delivery, and that's where repeated attempts to deliver parcels make no financial sense.

Most courier firms will attempt delivery no more than three times, and few companies would make concerted efforts to find their customer unless they were paying for a top notch service.

Rudder works for eCourier, which was started when a failed delivery of some tennis tickets left its founder thinking there must be a better way.

The company devised an online tracking system using GPS which allows customers to see where the driver with their parcel is all the time.

"If our clients can see that the driver's stuck in traffic they at least feel they know what's going on," says Daniel Wright from eCourier.

There's nothing unusual in the technology. All courier companies can track their drivers. What's unusual is giving customers the power to do the same. Big courier firms will tell you if the parcel is in a depot or out for delivery, but not the precise coordinates.

media captionNigel Doust of Blackbay demonstrates how the customer-tracking technology could work

Many people complain about the vague delivery promises made by most companies. A 12-hour delivery window, for instance, is not very helpful for busy people trying to get on with their lives.

But companies are increasingly narrowing down delivery times, and keeping customers better informed through text and email about when their delivery is due.

There's a big incentive for the retailer to get it right first time. Many clients don't know which company is delivering their order, but if something goes wrong it's the store where you bought the item which usually gets the blame.

"Your main point of contact is with the retailer," says Wilding. "And they're handing over responsibility for the delivery to another organisation. You've got to make sure they do it well. If they do, it will build loyalty and generate more business. But if you do it badly and use poor couriers it will cost your business an awful lot and customers won't come back."

Tracking technology can be used in other ways too. How about tracking the customer?

Blackbay, a company providing services to courier firms, has developed a smartphone app which enables delivery firms to find their customer even if they're not at the address they said they'd be at.

"The technology is quite straightforward," say Nigel Doust from Blackbay. "We're taking advantage of social media. Lots of people on Facebook or Twitter for instance can expose their location in a controlled way. This application uses that information to track you."

A customer specifies a delivery address but decides nearer to the delivery time that they'll be somewhere else to take delivery. Using the app they can allow the courier to track them using their handheld device to another location within a close distance of the delivery address.

Safeguards can be built in which limit the time someone can be tracked for, and who can actually track them. Also face recognition technology and a requirement for the customer to use a PIN number can be incorporated to ensure the parcel is delivered to the right person.

At the moment the app is still in development, but Blackbay believe it will be available to courier firms and clients within a year. Of course, initially at least, such a service would come with a premium.

Ultimately the solution to missed deliveries is likely to be a combination of low and high tech innovations. From neighbour delivery, to better communication with customers, to GPS tracking, slowly the misery of wasted time and wasted journeys to depots to collect parcels will hopefully become a thing of the past.

And fewer wasted journeys will also help to save the environment. Studies by Heriot Watt University have found a courier could try around 18 times to deliver a parcel and still emit less CO2 than someone driving to their local depot to collect it.