Package up a feature on trends in delivery service

by November 18, 2013

As parcels filled with holiday goods and gifts begin winging their way ’round the globe, the package delivery industry gets its moment in the spotlight.

Motorola wearable scanner

Wearable computers drive efficiency in the delivery business. Photo: Motorola

Even as Americans forego first-class mail in favor of electronic greeting cards and missives, the allure of e-commerce keeps delivery vans hopping.  There was that intriguing news the other day – covered by New York Times reporter and occasional Reynolds Center presenter Ron Nixon – that Amazon.com would employ the U.S. Postal Service to do Sunday deliveries in limited markets, effective immediately.

And separately, the USPS has said it expects to deliver 420 million packages this year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, up 12 percent from the same period a year ago.   The service expects Dec. 16 to be its busiest mailing day, and this release includes deadlines for overseas holiday mail and other consumer friendly info in case you do a box.

Meanwhile, FedEx says Dec. 2 — a.k.a. CyberMonday — will be its busiest day of the season, and that it expects 85 million shipments that week alone, up 13 percent from last year.   And UPS says the compressed period between Christmas and Thanksgiving this year, due to a Turkey Day that falls late in November, will increase volume intensity in those weeks; it expects to pick up 34 million packages on its peak day, Dec. 16, and looks for volume up 8 percent.

Clearly the e-commerce vs. bricks-and-mortar retail implications are of interest; you can use these factoids as a conversation starter with the mall and store managers competing with the ease and convenience of at-home cyber-shopping.  Are they using delivery services or other innovations to compete?  I see that restaurant and take-out food venues are — and here’s a story from Seattle about ‘curated’ food delivery that fetches vittles from places that normally don’t deliver, and even gives patrons the ability to schedule food arrival days in advance.  These innovations typically start in major markets and coastal big cities, but who knows?  Maybe entrepreneurs are trying similar services in Topeka, Dearborn and Dayton — it’s worth a look.

Here’s a just-out analysis from the MIT Technology Review of websites’ same-day services, and a CNET story about eBay expanding same-day delivery to more markets next year.

What are the logistics behind all of this instant gratification? I was kind of freaked out recently when I ordered something from a major online retailer and the next day saw some guy wheel up in an unmarked van and leave a package on my doorstep; it was my book — about five days earlier than anticipated — and I wondered where it had come from to arrive in the Detroit area so quickly.  Clearly they were using a casual delivery service, not a major carrier. From software design — here’s a Washington Post piece on state-of-the-art UPS software that helps drivers plan routes on the fly —   to dispatch centers, the business of moving packages is ripe for job-shadowing, tick-tocks and other business feature treatments.  (A graphic or video following a single package from Point A to Point Z would be interesting, too.)  Warehouse and loading technology and equipment might be a new twist, as well.

A few years ago, a reporter friend who shall remain nameless was issued a UPS uniform courtesy of the company’s media relations staff, and did a ride-along with a driver, helping to heft holiday gifts and gathering string for a piece on e-commerce trends along the way (the return addresses were a giveaway).  You may not want to go to those extremes, but a sidebar about the wages, benefits, qualifications and working conditions for delivery drivers and their colleagues in warehouses and dispatch centers might be interesting for readers.  Payscale.com, for example, says UPS drivers earn more than $26 an hour; other websites say that due to overtime, these pilots of the brown trucks may top out over $75,000 a year.  Why not interview area hiring managers — at independent and local courier firms as well as UPS, FedEx and other large companies — about hiring outlook for driver and other positions, what they look for in candidates and other job-hunter-friendly information?

And here’s a piece about a UPS driver who’s logged 7 million miles and 51 years without an accident; I bet he has some tales to tell about the evolution of home-delivery services.  Find some old hands in your neck of the woods and get their driver’s-eye view of e-commerce.

And one last little business angle that is a bit shipping-related is personalized postage, which one can create via services such as Zazzle and PhotoStamps.   Consumers pay a premium to upload digital images which are turned into sheets of authentic stamps accepted by the U.S. Postal Service.  I don’t think it’s a huge industry, though Stamps.com (which has many other lines of business in addition to its PhotoStamps site) just posted $8.8 million in quarterly profits.  If you’re doing shipping story, this might make a fun and informative personal finance piece or fit into a frugal gift-ideas story as the weeks roll on.