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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These charts show quite how few British cities have seen wages rise over the last decade

Mmm, money. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Why, one may wonder, is everyone in Britain so angry? In 2016, against the advice of experts and the confident expectations of almost everybody, a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union, in a move widely interpreted as a sign of quite how miffed the voters had become.

Ten months later, Theresa May called an election in the hope of capitalising on this anger, apparently forgetting that she was now Prime Minister so people were probably angry with her too, and promptly lost her majority. Despite the apparent return of two party politics after several decades’ absence, there’s an overwhelming sense abroad that most British voters don’t think very much of any of them.

The stream of books and columns purporting to explain this anger has been flowing for some time, and doesn’t soon seem likely to stop. But there are times, when trawling through the Centre for Cities’ economic data, that I’ve wondered if the explanation might actually be rather straightforward.

Below is a chart showing how average real wages – that is, those adjusted for inflation; their actual value, rather than their number – changed in Britain’s biggest cities the decade to 2017. This is a period that covered the financial crash and austerity, so you’d expect the results to not be brilliant.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite staggering to realise quite how tough on the wallet this last decade has been. Of the 63 cities shown, just 15 – less than a quarter – have seen real wages rise in the last 10 years. Just as many have seen wages fall by more than 6 per cent. In three, the fall is over 15. (The national average in this time, incidentally, was a fall of 2.8 per cent.)

Click to expand.

What’s more, the numbers shown on this chart don’t really match the patterns of economic geography I’ve grown to know and love. Those where wages have risen include Belfast, Glasgow and the three north eastern cities of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough: not places one associates with booms. At the other end of the scale, in several cities I tend to think of as prosperous – Edinburgh, Warrington, London – wages have still not returned to where they stood in 2007.

All this seemed so weird that I wondered whether it might be a function of starting in 2007 – so I looked at the same data from several other starting points. By and large, though, this pattern still holds.

Start the clock earlier, and you’ll find that in slightly more than half of British cities (35 out of 63), wages are still lower than they were in 2004. The national average since then: a fall of 1.9 per cent.

Click to expand.

Or start in 2010, the year the Conservatives returned to power and embarked upon austerity. Since then, real wages have fallen by an average of 1.3 per cent. In 40 out of 63 cities, they were lower in 2017 than they’d been in 2010.

Click to expand.

At risk of undermining my own narrative, things have got better recently. This is the same chart, for the period from 2015 to 2017. Suddenly, things are much sunnier: the national average is a rise of 6.2 per cent, and there are only nine cities where wages haven’t risen.

Click to expand.

So perhaps things are getting better – or at least, perhaps they were. Whether that will continue after Brexit – a move every economist on earth except Patrick Minford believes will hamper the British economy’s growth potential – remains to be seen.


These are only averages, of course: in some cities, they may be influenced by big shifts in specific professions (the fall in pay in London’s financial sector, for example). And a significant minority of the population doesn’t live in any of these cities.

Nonetheless: the reasons why, by 2016, so many voters were so angry with their political leaders suddenly seem rather obvious.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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