The tactics and rules were changed, but the objective was the same. On went the stopwatch.
1 (2) DHL 18hrs 35mins (18hrs 10mins) £33.02 (£27.45)
2 (1) TNT 19hrs 20mins (13hrs 50mins) £35.48 (£33.50)
3 (3) UPS 23hrs 15mins (18hrs 45mins) £23.50 (£23.50)
4 (4) Datapost 42hrs 50mins (20hrs 15mins) £26.70 (£26.70)
5 (5) Securicor 47hrs 40mins (48hrs 05mins) £36.30 £18.20)
1 (2) DHL 19hrs 55mins (16hrs 50mins) £33.02 (£27.45)
2 (1) TNT 20hrs 55mins (15hrs 50mins) £35.48 (£33.50)
3 (4) UPS 21hrs 35mins (19hrs 20mins) £23.50 (£23.50)
4 (5) Datapost 41hrs 35mins (45hrs 15mins) £26.70 (£26.70)
5 (3) Securicor 44hrs 15mins (18hrs 40mins) £36.30 (£18.20)
1 (1) DHL 19hrs 45mins (20hrs 10mins) £35.84 (£31.40)
2 (2) Datapost 21hrs 30mins (20hrs 15mins) £29.00 (£29.00)
3 (5) TNT 24hrs 25mins (113hrs 40mins) £29.38 (£28.00)
4 (4) UPS 26hrs 05mins (23hrs 20mins) £42.47 (£39.00)
5 (3) Securicor 45hrs 45mins (21hrs 40mins) £57.50 (£20.10)
Last year's results are shown in brackets.
When a courier you are furtively testing rings up to inform you that one of your packages has been slightly delayed you begin to have your suspicions. When, a year later, several other couriers all eagerly call to enquire when you will be repeating the test, you know that it's time for a change of tactics.
What was needed, clearly, was to recapture that element of surprise. The solution was to assume a new identity - a new name, a new address, a new phone number. Thus it was that, for the short space of an afternoon, Management Today sought cover in the west London offices of Text 100, the hi-tech PR consultants. Judging by the results, it seems to have worked: for the first time in three years we heard not a word from anyone.
First, I must admit that we have refined the rules. In previous years we started the clock as soon as the courier left our reception. As this gave an immediate advantage to those who picked up their packages last, this year we based all transit times on an average collection time of 3pm. The final times now show those who delivered their packages first, rather than the shortest time from door to door.
The ground, too, has shifted. Though the line-up of couriers, the weight of the packages and the destinations all remain the same, the procedures for crossing Europe have radically changed since last year. Several couriers have raised the stakes by vaunting the operational efficiencies and service improvements they have enjoyed since the removal of border controls in January.
The placing of the bookings and the collection of packages all went according to plan. Two couriers arrived simultaneously but, before they seemed any the wiser, were quickly steered in different directions. The most courteous was the UPS driver. He was also the only one to volunteer an assurance of next-day delivery - a claim two of his counterparts would have been unwise to make.
The first call from our recipients came the following morning from Paris - DHL had delivered at 10.35am, followed 45 minutes later by TNT. UPS, the only other carrier to deliver within 24 hours, came in a further 55 minutes behind. Datapost arrived the following morning, Securicor that afternoon - just 20 minutes inside of our notional 48-hour deadline. It was a pattern that was to be repeated in Dusseldorf: DHL first, TNT second, UPS third. Again, Datapost delivered the following morning, Securicor that afternoon. Only in Madrid was the dominance of the trio disturbed - by Datapost, who slipped in at second place, two hours behind the now unassailable DHL. Securicor, somewhat predictably, rolled in just before 2pm the following day.
The late arrival of Securicor might not have seemed so grievous had it not been for its assurances of rapid delivery. When I originally made the booking I questioned what seemed an excessive price (£57.50 - double that of the cheapest courier). I was assured that Securicor had an air network that allowed it to reach Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid within 24 hours. When I replied that, if it would be any cheaper, a two-day service would serve just as well, I was told that the latter would cost just the same - it was clearly the two-day service that we received.
As usual, the test threw up all manner of contradictions. Through some strange logic, Paris, the nearest destination, had the longest average transit time, while the furthest - Madrid - had the shortest. Again price was a meaningless indicator of service - Securicor came away with the dual ignominy of being both the most expensive and slowest carrier to all three destinations. UPS, on the other hand, proved to be the cheapest next-day operator.
There were some encouraging signs. For the first time in three years all 15 packages reached their destinations within the allotted two-day period. Whether this was due to the absence of often baroque customs procedures or a reflection of greater diligence on the part of the couriers is unclear. Whatever the reason, if the reduced costs of operating within the single market are passed on to the consumer as promised, faster should also mean cheaper.