Why are private delivery firms so terrible?

Don't get excited. Image: Getty.

This article was originally published on our sisters site, the New Statesman, back in 2013: some correspondents have claimed that the technology at some companies has since moved on. 

But at others, it very clearly hasn't, and tis the season where to topic becomes suddenly, frustratingly relevant once again. So...

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 papers. 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.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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