The fourth annual comparison of a selection of unsuspecting UK courier companies reveals that not all can deliver on their promises.
Paranoid about being discovered by a group of equally paranoid couriers, Management Today assumed the tones of typing pool indifference and embarked on the yearly deception of a selection of UK couriers. The six, plus Swiftair, the Royal Mail's priority airmail service, appeared oblivious to the fourth annual conspiracy as the bookings were made.
This year the finishing line was moved to Japan, to an address near the headquarters of Sony and Coca-Cola in downtown Tokyo. We were interested in being as fair as possible. Every parcel weighed 750g, each was clearly labelled and, considering that most were likely to be dispatched on a flight that Monday evening, we used an average departure time of 4pm. The reality, however, was not so neat. It is difficult to know whether, despite our cover of Haymarket Publishing, any suspicions were aroused. But in an effort to avoid being rumbled we hared between two receptions so that none of the couriers would collide, and paid all those companies demanding payment on collection with personal cheques.
Confirming price and transit time when booking, as well as weight, destination and the type of service, may seem a bore but it is effectively your insurance policy if there are problems later. Unsurprisingly, the postal option presented the least hassle, with no phoning or waiting for collection.
The decision to include Swiftair was half cheeky and half a hunch that the humble postie could possibly prove more efficient than the couriers with their snappy slogans and bright logos.
Our hunch was right. First to arrive in the hands of our man in Tokyo was the Swiftair package, 58 hours and 15 minutes after it was posted in central London. Priority post is treated as such in Japan, dispatched by motorbike four times a day, seven days a week from local post offices.
The couriers were not far behind. Cheap and reliable UPS arrived two hours after the postman's knock, Securicor and DHL three hours after UPS. The penultimate Japanese delivery a day later, at 82 hours and 25 minutes was Parcelforce, slow, but, as with the others, well within its guaranteed time.
Parcelforce does not do deliveries itself outside the UK. Like Securicor, which does not deliver outside Europe, the work is contracted out to local couriers. Unlike Securicor, this is not reflected in the price. Parcelforce charges a reasonable £29, whereas Securicor's service, conducted via Federal Express, came to £35. A Federal Express employee unwittingly described this pricing as a 'scam' when it was casually raised during a telephone call.
Federal Express appeared an hour after Parcelforce, clearly unable to meet its promised 48-hour deadline. What went wrong? The usually super-efficient Federal Express had encountered no problem keeping to Securicor's estimated five-day delivery time. Yet when it came to meeting its own deadline it trundled in late - 35 hours and 20 minutes late to be precise.
This is when the extra time spent confirming details at the initial booking pays off. Federal Express was prompt to confirm it was to blame for the slip-up (the banana skin was a missed connection at Memphis) and assured us that our account would be duly credited. If any Federal Express shipment arrives more than one minute late it will refund the cost.
The same goes for quotes on price. TNT invoiced for more than double the price it originally quoted. But any dispute was cleared up with booking reference numbers to prove the original quote's existence, and our insistence that we got what was promised.
Management Today had the couriers under a microscope so errors and tardiness were sure to be picked up. Had this been a normal situation, however, we would not have had time to follow up the smallest of problems and take meticulous care with each booking.
Much of that time was spent on TNT, which was effectively the winner, delivering in 49 hours. But the parcel was delivered to a neighbour in the addressee's absence. No note was left, no short call made to say the parcel had been left next door. The neighbour duly went on holiday and as far as our tireless recipient was concerned there was 'still no sign of TNT'. A careless mistake that plunged the company from first position to last.
Snappy slogans and flashy logos did not win the race to Tokyo. Parcelforce uses the line 'Turning up the power to deliver'. It is going to have to turn the power up a few more notches to match the power of Swiftair, its Post Office stablemate, which is three times cheaper and, to Tokyo at least, nearly twice as fast. Admittedly, our man in Japan told us about the superiority of Japanese express mail. But it leaves the now-common conclusion that price is often not a fair indication of efficiency.
Oh, and if a Mr Tanaka in Tokyo happens to be reading this article, could he pop along to David Kilburn's flat next door and finish off TNT's job for it.
SEVEN GO TO TOKYO
Company Actual time Quoted time Cost
(hours) (days) £
1 TNT 49.05 2 27.90
2 Swiftair 58.15 3 9.05
3 UPS 60.30 2-3 27.00
4 Securicor 63.05 5 35.00
5 DHL 63.15 2 31.50
6 Parcelforce 82.25 4 29.00
7 Federal Express 83.20 2 29.00.