Monday, September 13, 2010

Privatising deliveries

The recent news that the Royal Mail is to be privatised has had mixed reactions in me. I'm not a dogmatist who believes that privatisation is the solution to everything but I am open to considering ways that can improve the service for consumers. I'm way too young to remember the Thatcher era privatisations (apart from those wonderful Addams Family inspired adverts for, I think, electricity shares) so I don't know for sure if there really were similar concerns raised when telephone privatisation was first mooted. However there are some very real concerns about the effect on the service stemming from the unique nature of deliveries, and which can already be seen with courier firms.

(Interlude: If you're a courier driver who has arrived here by search engine, please read the full post before making a stock rant in the comments section. I do address some of the common comments there, and a lot of the problems are not down to the driver.)

Deliveries to the home are one of the few services I can think of where the vast majority of main consumers do not make the decision about the supplier. The average recipient gets limited choice over who delivers their parcels to them yet it is the recipient and not the sender who has to deal with the consequences of the choice. Even with online shopping many sellers do not state the delivery firm that will be used, and sometimes when they do that can change without the consent of the buyer. A common story is people explicitly choosing Royal Mail first class or Parcelforce and instead getting what was Home Delivery Network Limited (HDNL) and now Yodel. There's a huge difference between firms who come to my door and deliver the parcel when I'm in or leave a card for collection at an easily accessible local depot and firms who employ drivers who either never show up (according to CCTV) but record that they have or who do arrive but see a block of flats and drive off without even bothering to press the button to request entry, leaving me having to chase things up via a premium rate phone number then trek to a depot in the middle of nowhere with limited accessible opening hours or public transport. (HDNL/Yodel are not the only firm who often the latter approach. City Link do similar, with the addition of threatening the seller with additional return fees. However they do have better depot opening hours including Saturday mornings.) Searching the internet reveals many pages of complaints about particular firms, in the hope of discouraging others from using them.

The result is that the recipient gets a very mixed service. Glancing across various internet forums where senders, recipients (or non-), drivers and managers all rage it seems clear there has been a breakdown of communication between the various parties involved. Sellers are not providing buyers with sufficient advance information and/or choice about how the goods are sent (and often not passing on tracking numbers). Sellers are also making implicit or explicit promises that couriers aren't able to keep such as about which day to expect delivery (in particular encouraging expectations of Saturday arrivals). Couriers are offering highly different levels of service and buyers are expecting the upper end or the Royal Mail service to be the default, particularly when it comes to things like getting into blocks of flats (which is not as difficult as couriers claim - I should know both as a former Yellow Pages deliverer and as a regular political deliverer & canvasser). Other mixed areas include predicting delivery times - some firms predict a two hour window, others a twelve hour one. Some drivers will actually ring the recipient, others never. Drivers are often supplied with poor information and equipment by their firms - out of date maps that don't show new developments or no standard delivery keys that would speed up many flat deliveries. Some firms are also wasting their own time and resources, particularly with repeated attempts at delivery - there are many recipients who would rather their parcel stayed at the depot after the first attempt so they can collect it directly more immediately, and those who want to try again can (or should be able to) book the second attempt specifically. Firms being inaccessible online and using premium rate phone numbers onlys adds to the frustrations. Drivers also produce mixed results - some do brilliant service and go that extra distance, others do atrocious things like throwing parcels over walls to break or not showing up at all.

Buyers are not totally blameless here either. Many simply do not bother to check basic things like whether they actually have the correct post code (it's not unusual to have a wrong one and not notice it because the mail still keeps arriving) or providing special instructions when ordering (yes some sellers don't provide that option in the pro forma but even when they do it's not always used). And yes a lot of people do order even though they won't be in - not everyone can take days on end off work to meet an open ended delivery. But also some people take that as a routine hazard and expect to be left a card so they can go and pick the package up from a local delivery centre.

(Another brief interlude but I want to take on directly the "if you are't going to be in, don't order online" or "why not go to the shops?" points often left in comments sections. There are firms who do decent deliveries even if one is not in and the goods get to the recipient in timely manner, so it's not that simple. And people are buying more and more on the internet for a variety of reasons, both because of cost but also because some items are simply not available in shops - for instance my shoe size is simply not stocked in any shoe shop near me - and this is a trend that keeps on growing. Specialist material - e.g. academic books - is similarly not available in high streets and that's before we come to many people, especially in metropolitan areas, not owning cars.)

Expectations have been largely set by the Royal Mail experience - and most recipients have probably never sent anything with anyone but Royal Mail and/or Parcelforce so haven't experienced returns or complaints - and to be frank there are a lot of firms who do not meet up to those expectations. But of course these are not the expectations and experiences of those choosing the delivery firm so it doesn't have the kind of impact the market is supposed to normally provide. Just look at the failure of the various online petitions calling on firms to stop using particular couriers (and some of the staff in those couriers would privately like to see the end of the contracts that generate the most hassle and complaints). It's only large institutions with enough buying power to be able to dictate to suppliers terms such as not using a particularly problematic delivery firm who can achieve anything in this area.

For the rest of us the result of competition is a very hit and miss situation that often doesn't give improved service but instead endless hassle and corner cutting as firms treat basic essentials for operating, training and equipping as optional extras. I worry that privatising the mail is going to have similar results, especially in areas where the costs are high such as rural communities.

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