The Sharp End: Deliver until you drop

It's a day of logistical learning for Rhymer Rigby as he co-pilots a UPS parcels van.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

About a year ago, I tried couriering the hard way for this column - on a bicycle. After seven or eight hours cycling round London, I walked like a hobbled robot for two days afterwards. So this time round I thought I'd experience the delivery business the easy way, riding in style in a UPS van.

I arrived bright and early at the north London depot in Kentish Town. I dream of one day finding a Sharp End job that doesn't require me to get up before 6am. Once I'd signed in, I was handed my regulation UPS uniform of brown trousers and shirt. I looked covetously at the shorts some of the regulars were wearing, since it looked like it was going to be a scorcher. As it turned out, the weather was pretty mixed and UPS uniforms are surprisingly comfortable.

I was taken out to meet my driver, Mark Staples, and after a cursory rearrangement of parcels in the back of the van we headed off. We were doing WC1 - that area of central London bounded by King's Cross in the north and Lincoln's Inn in the south. It's a mix of residential and commercial and, as I was to discover, home to untold thousands of SMEs.

Our route was determined largely by the timing of packages (eg, deliver by noon), and the proximity of one drop to another. If you've ever sent something cheaply and had it arrive early, it's because your recipient happened to be next door to someone using a more expensive service. This being central London, there was nowhere to park, so most of the time we stopped at the kerbside. Parking tickets are an occupational hazard, said Mark, and the company simply pays them as an operating expense. On my day, though, we didn't get one - and saw hardly any traffic wardens. Were they away at their annual conference in Rio, sitting through workshops on 'excellence in people skills' and 'providing lasting customer delight' perhaps?

The drops soon blurred into one. People send all sorts of odd things to one another - anything from polystyrene cups to large chunks of car. Most packages are anonymous boxes and we had to guess their contents. Mailrooms were sometimes easy to find, sometimes near impossible - London's Georgian and Victorian buildings weren't designed with modern logistics in mind.

Nonetheless (and I sound like I'm shilling for UPS here), it was hard not be impressed with the efficiency of the operation and the vast networks, both real and virtual, that made it all look slick and effortless. But there were times when we couldn't find our recipient and the package had to go back. Typical returns are those where a surcharge has to be paid (usually a customs fee incurred by buying from a US website) and those where there was a company name but no individual's name. Hint: if you want a package delivered, put someone's name on it. In these amber-alert days, most mailrooms won't sign for packages addressed only to a company. In most cases, UPS really tried. One package had been out three times; it seemed the company didn't exist.

Lunchtime was spent picking up some food at Sainsbury's in Holborn then parking up in Bloomsbury Square in the company of dozens of other van-drivers. The multi-drop drivers' lunch market is a goldmine waiting to be tapped: provide a car park where they can stop for an hour, the price of admission to include a feed and a paper. Oh, and memo to Sainsbury's: your curries are decent but your salads taste of cellulose and water.

After our sojourn in the square, we had more pickups to do. You get to see a lot of corporate receptions - the public face they show the world and their clients. A few firms treated us like second-class citizens, but most were nice enough. I'd single out Jetro (the Japan External Trade Organisation) for special praise, though. They have the best-mannered receptionist I've ever met.

By about 4pm we'd done our last pick-up and headed back to the depot and thence home. Mark earns about £25k for a 40-hour week and lives in north Hertfordshire. His job demands a fair old commute, and I asked if he'd ever been tempted to swap to another area. He said he'd been offered Luton, but he was loath to change. WC1 has plenty to look at, a wealth of beautiful architecture and quite a few beautiful people: traffic apart, it's an attractive and interesting place to drive around. By contrast, Luton's star attractions - I should know, I was born there - are the car factory and the airport. You decide.

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