UK: Re-running the courier stakes - TRANSPORT 2.

UK: Re-running the courier stakes - TRANSPORT 2. - Management Today plays pass the parcel with five leading couriers. Nick Hassell.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Management Today plays pass the parcel with five leading couriers. Nick Hassell.

Undeterred by last year's sometimes erratic results, Management Today once again dug out its stopwatch and put five unwitting couriers to the test. The rules of engagement remained largely the same; the mid-week collection of three identical 1 kg packages from our central London offices for delivery before the weekend to three European cities. Speed was still the main criteria, though one of the destinations had changed, with Madrid this year taking the place of Milan (a switch in part prompted by last year's difficulties in Italy, where, in several cases, a calendar would have been a more appropriate gauge than a stopwatch). The line-up too had altered, with Federal Express the notable absentee since the acquisition in March of their intra-European network by Securicor Omega Express. The conclusion of the newly re-branded Parcelforce Datapost meanwhile rectified their previous omission.

Placing the bookings provided few immediate obstacles. The quoted transit times varied marginally between carriers, with TNT, UPS and DHL citing next-day delivery to all European destinations, Securicor came back with a more cautious 1-2 day estimate, while Parcelforce Datapost were alone in actually guaranteeing delivery times, quoting one working day to Paris and two to Madrid and Dusseldorf.

Rather confusingly, given that all packages were identical, different carriers seem to operate different policies as to what qualified as a document and what was merchandise (the latter then requiring lengthy form-filling customs documentation). DHL, UPS and Securicor treated all the packages as documents, while Datapost's shipment to Dusseldorf was singled out as merchandise - unlike those it carried to Paris and Madrid. Similarly, all packages carried by TNT required accompanying paperwork. Whatever the rationale, however, this erratic classification seemed to have little effect on the eventual time of delivery, with all packages appearing to pass through customs unhindered.

Where possible, collection times were specified at half-hour intervals throughout the afternoon - for the most part to avoid unfortunate scenes in our reception whereby drivers picking up identical consignments collided and so caught on to our wiles. Given the intensely competitive nature of the industry, it was also thought politic to keep fierce rivals safely apart. All went to plan until TNT's allotted collection time, which, at 3.30, was also the latest slot of the afternoon. Rather than being able to specify an exact time when placing the booking, I was told that pick-up would be some time between 3.30 and 6.00 pm. Somewhat nonchalantly, yet with admirable self-assurance, the driver didn't actually show up until a few minutes after six. When this last courier had left our reception, packages in hand, there was then little to do but sit back and wait.

The first response came from Paris, where TNT's package crossed the line at 8.55 am - just 13 hours 50 minutes after its despatch. Not only was this the earliest delivery of the competition but TNT picked up the laurel for the single reduction in transit time, having knocked some 33 hours off its previous year's result. The next three packages, from DHL, UPS and Datapost, appeared in quick succession over the next few hours.

At around the time that Datapost were handling over what was to be the last package of the day, Securicor's international customer services division apologetically called our London office. The news was not good: their truck at Paris had apparently been delayed and missed its connection. Delivery, I was told, could take "anything up to 24 hours" - which it did, and more, arriving in the late afternoon of the following day yet whatever the eventual delivery time, the swiftness of response and level of information was undeniably impressive.

Certainly, within Management Today's brief experience, a courier actually calling a customer to explain a 24-hour delay was wholly unprecedented (not to say, in our circumstances, rather suspicious. Had every sender of a package on that unhappy truck been similarly informed?). Whatever, even after this setback, Securicor transit time to Paris was still an hour faster than it managed last year. Indeed, the average time for all five carriers over this route had fallen by over seven hours.

Deliveries to Dusseldorf followed a similar pattern, with the first package arriving shortly before half past nine the following morning. Again four of the five packages were to come in well within 24 hours. DHL was actually the first past the post, closely followed by Securicor, though it was TNT who emerged with the shortest overall transit time largely thanks to their late departure. Datapost was the last to arrive with a time of 45 hours, yet significantly it kept within is two-day guarantee. Again, the average time had decreased quite substantially (by six and a half hours in this instance), with TNT and Securicor showing the greatest improvement on their previous year's results.

Madrid was the one unknown quantity and in the event produced the closest run for first place, with Datapost recording their best result by trailing the leader, DHL, by only five minutes. The major upset came with the downfall of UPS who, having up until now met their next-day estimate, were here alone in failing to deliver before the end of working hours on Friday.

Eager to receive an explanation, and at the same time test the tracing technology used by the majority of carriers, I called their customer service centre in London that same afternoon. While they were immediately able to report that the package had arrived in Spain the day after its despatch, as yet they had no proof of delivery. A trace was then initiated, but this, I was told, could take up to 48 hours. In the event it was six working days before I heard, yet by then the package had long since surfaced. Moreover, the information, when it did come, was rather vague - a date, but no indication of the time of delivery. While the delay itself might well have been beyond the carrier's control - a customs inspection, say - an imprecise and belated response rendered the eventual information of little value.

The good news for the consumer? On the basis of our admittedly selective survey, couriers are not only getting faster but also encouragingly cheaper. Whether a sign of recession or of an increasingly mature market, price competition between operators seems to have intensified considerably. Securicor, for example, has cut its European rates by 60% over the last year, as a result sliding from being the single most expensive carrier in our survey to the cheapest. By the same measure DHL and TNT show a reduction in tarrifs of between 6-13%. The upshot of all this is that the average price for a 1 kg package is some 20% lower than last year on the Dusseldorf route and 18% lower on that to Paris. Again, UPS was alone in offering a uniform rate to all three destinations, though its previous role was the fastest least-cost operator was severely challenged by Securicor.

The correlation between price and performance meanwhile remains as insubstantial as ever. Last year, for example the most expensive carrier proved, rather perversely, to be the slowest overall three routes. This year, at least in two cases, the most expensive, TNT, was reassuringly also the fastest.

On one of the same routes the slowest was conveniently the cheapest. There, however, the relationship appears to end - price, it seems, is ultimately no guarantee of service.

Unlike last year all packages reportedly arrived in good condition and, more importantly, to the intended recipient. For that matter, no clear laggard emerged either. If honours were to be bestowed, then Securicor would receive the prize for most improved performance (though cynics might carp that they couldn't have done any worse). But, while congratulating them on having had a more encouraging year, the real kudos go to TNT and DHL for continuing to impress with consistent speed.

How they did - This year and last year

To Paris Time Cost

1(4) TNT Skypak 13 hrs 50 mins (47 hrs 20 mins) £33.50 (£35.50)

2(1) DHL 18 hrs 10 mins (16 hrs 45 mins) £27.45 (£29.65)

3(2) UPS 18 hrs 45 mins (20 hrs 10 mins) £23.50 (£17.50)

4(-) Datapost 20 hrs 15 mins (-) £26.70 (£26.20)

5(5) Securicor 48 hrs 5 mins (49 hrs 15 mins) £18.20 (£46.30)

To Dusseldorf

1(4) TNT Skypak 15 hrs 50 mins (42 hrs 20 mins) £33.50 (£38.70)

2(1) DHL 16 hrs 50 mins (18 hrs 25 mins) £27.45 (£29.65)

3(5) Securicor 18 hrs 40 mins (45 hrs 45 mins) £18.20 (£46.20)

4(3) UPS 19 hrs 20 mins (21 hrs 30 mins) £23.50 (£17.50)

5(-) Datapost 45 hrs 15 mins (-) £26.70 (£28.80)

To Madrid

1 DHL 20 hrs 10 mins £31.40

2 Datapost 20 hrs 15 mins £29.00

3 Securicor 21 hrs 40 mins £20.10

4 TNT Skypak 23 hrs 20 mins £39.00

5 UPS 113 hrs 40 mins(a) £28.00

Times shown are those from door to door. Last year's results appear in brackets.

(a) Includes weekend - failed to deliver before end of working hours on Friday.

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