Shooting the messenger: Real-life couriers, behind the scenes

It’s hard to think of a time when you couldn't order gadgets and have them magically appear at your door in mere days. We talk to the foot soldiers about their daily challenges.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: Fedex

There was no knock at the door.

None. Not a tap, not a scrape, not even a breath. Nothing. 

The Parcelforce delivery man, standing at the front door of my home in his civilian blues, whipped out a card from his pocket, scribbled a brief note on it, shoved it through the door. And without missing a beat he turned on his heels toward his parked van.

Not this time. 

I leapt from the couch, dashed to the front door, and ripped the hastily written card from the letterbox. Once outside, I all but threw myself on the hood of the courier's van — which even in this briefest of moments he was already in, I'll have you know — as I shook the card in the air at him in a fit of rage.

He looked surprised, and said, poking his head out the side window with a smile: "Oh, hello mate, I didn't think you were in." 

Having retrieved my parcel from my neighbor's house, where the courier had strategically dropped it, I trudged back toward my front door with a scowl.

I glanced down at the delivery card in my balled up fist. "Sorry we missed you!"

* * *

I may have narrowly avoided the "drop and dash" that day, but like anyone else, there are other times when I haven't been so lucky.

I was at my family home in northern England for a few weeks, spending time with friends and family away from the grotesque heat and humidity of the U.S. eastern seaboard. In New York City, where I now live, there are precious few places to make a delivery at a building without a porter manning the door. It is a process seemingly designed for maximum frustration.

But I wanted to know how the other half lives. What is it actually like to fulfil hundreds of orders for laptops and e-readers and cat litter and blue jeans when their intended recipients are likely toiling away at the office during delivery hours?

Is the entire situation an exercise in futility, equally frustrating on both sides of the doorbell? I had to know.

"I would say it's more myth and misconception than reality," said Bill, a 20-year veteran of the New York City delivery business, about people's expectation that couriers are incentivized to make a drop without a knock. 

(Bill is not his real name. Like other couriers quoted in this article, I have granted him anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of his employer.)

But it does happen, doesn't it? Bill shrugged his shoulders.

"It means more work and longer hours the next day in order to keep up," he said. "Unless I'm off sick, it will be me who delivers to the same address again."

"There's no passing the buck in this business."

* * *

As I spoke to more and more drivers and couriers, it became clear to me that the job went far beyond those two tasks. For some, the job is something akin to an art form: the daily and strategic navigation of innumerable paths and variables — weather, traffic, pedestrians, and miscommunication. One unexpected wrench could halt the entire works.

Khalilah Yasmin, a former DHL courier from Omaha, Nebraska, described a typical day on the job. 

"Deadlines were difficult [to meet] in the colder months," she said. "If your route started on one side of town and you had 40 other things to deliver... a midday deadline will make you leave your steady progress so that you can meet [it]. That's when things get out of order and your day drags on."

For Khalilah, the day started at 6 a.m. That's when she left the dock where parcels scheduled for delivery would begin rolling down the belt. Some days, she would finish as early as mid-morning, she said. Other days would last until the late afternoon. 

At each delivery location, "I would knock and count to ten before heading on to the next home for signature required packages," she told me. "Anything else is left on the front step after the initial knock." 

Like Bill, Khalilah said the never-ending cycle of redeliveries is a large part of what makes their rounds so tough.

"If we stopped at everyone's home twice a day, our days would never end," she said.

* * *

Technology has helped alleviate the logistics pain. One U.K.-based courier, who I'll call John, said the business has dramatically changed since his father made deliveries years ago.

"Ten years ago, everything was written down," he said. "You couldn't track parcels online. You could leave parcels, as nothing needed signatures."

Today, "every parcel is now trackable online with electronic signatures, so you should be able to view where your parcel is at any given time and who signed for it and at what time," he said.

"The changes in technology for this industry has made things better. We have information for every parcel — if we don't know where an address is, we have software where we can enter a postcode and it will bring up every house number and house name on that road, and pinpoint it exactly where it is on that particular road." 

I asked John to describe his workday to me. Unusually, he is a freelance courier in a world where most couriers are unionized and insured, and is paid based for each parcel delivered.

"On an average day, I tend to do 100 to 125 drops, averaging around 170 to 210 parcels," he said. "But I often don't have a break, so I'm working constantly from 5:30 a.m. through to six in the evening."

He added: "I average about 15 to 25 collections per day on top of my deliveries. In my opinion, pickups are worse. You will get calls for pickups with a 'ready' time and a 'closed' time, which can be in some cases a 15- or 30-minute window."

John said that he could face suspension for missing a pickup, and he is contractually obligated to deliver a parcel on the day indicated, or else he will be fined.

"Rather than salary paid, with sick pay, pensions, unions, bonuses, I now get paid for every parcel I deliver. You have to make sure every box is gone. It doesn't matter how you do it, you do it."

"It's not like a regular job where, 'Here is your work'," he said. "Every day is challenging."

* * *

So what can we as recipients do to help out? John said there's a low-tech way to make a courier's workday easier and get your package more quickly.

"A simple note on the door to say, 'Leave at so-and-so neighbor,' would be a great help," he said. "We really don't have a lot of time to be knocking 'round the neighbors' houses as well."

For any number of reasons, communication is key. "A note on the front door helps — if we know to wait, we'll wait. But otherwise it's anybody's guess if someone's home."

That's because couriers can't afford to hang around, even if you are home. John said that an exceptionally long drop may take just three to four minutes. Log several three-minute drops on a day with more than a hundred deliveries scheduled, and a courier's overall performance suffers. It's even worse during the winter holiday season, when a courier might deliver upwards of 300 packages per day.

"I do try to leave parcels in a secure or safe place," he said. "I take careful consideration as to what the parcel is, where has it come from, and what sort of area I'm in before I leave a parcel."

And in that rare moment that you do spot a frazzled courier, a small gesture of kindness can go a long way.

"Next time you see a driver in a mood, offer some water or juice — but not coffee," Bill said. "And let them use your bathroom."

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