UK: ORIENT EXPRESS. - The 'big five', an underdog and a 'wild card' take the first flight to Shanghai in Management Today's annual courier test. Rhymer Rigby Rigby delivery test.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The 'big five', an underdog and a 'wild card' take the first flight to Shanghai in Management Today's annual courier test. Rhymer Rigby Rigby delivery test.

It would be nice to think that you get what you pay for. If, for example, you pay over the odds to fly first class, you expect your flight to be somehow 'better' than in economy. Fair enough in most situations, perhaps: but, if this year's courier test is anything to go by, not in the express delivery business. The fifth annual Management Today courier test selected, among others, the big five: Datapost, DHL, Federal Express (now re-styled FedEx), TNT, and UPS. Also in contention were Swiftair, the Post Office's priority airmail service, and FOB, a 'wild card' picked from the Yellow Pages for its competitive price.

This year, after having used Tokyo as last year's destination, the finishing line stayed in the Orient but moved south-west to an office in central Shanghai, which is less well served by airlines than the Japanese capital. The starting point was also moved, albeit by a comparatively small distance. Having used Management Today's reception last year - and wary of being rumbled by the couriers - we moved across town to a reception near Tower Bridge.

On booking the couriers, one difference was immediately apparent: the price. For what, at first glance, is an identical service, prices differed considerably, ranging from FOB's economical £25 to TNT's princely £48.90. An average departure time of 4pm was used - it was assumed that all packages would be on that evening's flight - though the couriers were booked to collect their packages at half-hourly intervals to avoid overlaps and difficult-to-explain encounters. In retrospect, there seemed little point in this precaution: few of the couriers arrived on time, appearing either early or late. Only UPS and Datapost collided but luckily the couriers in question were acquainted and far too busy catching up to catch on.

Each courier was given a clearly labelled envelope, containing two copies of Management Today, selected to weigh just under 500g. All the couriers were paid with personal cheques which, while it may have seemed a little odd at a large company's reception, was explained away as a visitor needing to send an urgent package. To give the couriers their due, none made any promises. They stressed that the given delivery times were estimates, citing variations on the caveat, 'Well, China can be a little dicey and the customs can be a problem' as the reason. All except FOB made it to Shanghai within their estimated times. First past the post, and the undisputed winner, was FedEx: the company delivered the package in just over two and a half working days - pretty good for half-way round the world. FedEx's claim to the gold medal is further strengthened by its reasonable price of £27 - the third cheapest in the race - and the unblemished parcel it delivered.

The next morning, 16 hours later, UPS delivered its parcel intact, in good time, and at a fair price. In third place, TNT arrived shortly afterwards. Despite its respectable delivery time, TNT lost marks because, at nearly £50, it was both expensive and the package slightly damaged. There was a significant time lag between the top three and the other couriers who, with the exception of Swiftair, arrived the following Monday.(As Sunday is not a working day in either China or the UK, it was excluded from the stated delivery times).

FOB and DHL both arrived at 10 am on the Monday morning, clocking up transit times of four days eleven hours. As both the packages were in good shape, price was the only other criterion. FOB charged a bargain £25, DHL considerably more at £40: the latter may be a market leader, but why should anyone pay 60% more for what seems in most respects to be an identical service?

Datapost, the Post Office's courier service, rolled in one and a half hours later, the last of the couriers in every sense, having delivered a package that moved our hardworking recipient to note 'serious damage, big holes'. And what of Swiftair? After last year's brilliant victory, it had a lot to live up to. Sadly - everyone loves an underdog - this year it came last, with a slightly tattered package. In its defence, Swiftair charged a mere £13.38, which is less than half the bill for Datapost, which delivered the package in a worse condition just over a day earlier.

FedEx, the holder of last year's wooden spoon, now proudly sports a gold medal; TNT, last year's fastest, has slipped to the ignominy of fourth place with a tatty package. Prizes for consistency go to UPS - apparently a fixture in either second or third place - and Datapost, which has been stuck in the lower echelons since its first inclusion.

It may be unfair to judge a courier's delivery times on the results of one test - after all, this year's star was last year's turkey. However, one consistent result has been the lack of correlation between price and performance. Until Management Today finds a courier with tariffs that reflect its speed in delivery, a low price is as good a guide as any.


Rank Company Time (in days, excluding Sundays) Cost(£)

1 FedEx 2 days 16 hrs 27.00

2 UPS 3 days 10 hrs 35.50

3 TNT 3 days 11 hrs 40mins 48.90

4= DHL 4 days 11 hrs 40.80

4= FOB 4 days 11 hrs 25.00

5 Datapost 4 days 12 hrs 30 mins 32.20

6 Swiftair 5 days 14 hrs 15 mins 13.38.

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