Online retailers continue to pass the parcel after couriers fail to deliver the goods
Complaints are up 48% as firms pop up to deal with the surge in online shopping. But, as Anna Tims writes, the problem is we want it cheap
Ben Thomas (not his real name) was startled to learn that the £262 robot vacuum cleaner he’d ordered online from Gearbest had been successfully delivered. There was no sign of it at his London address and no card put through his letter box. He contacted the delivery firm, Yodel, and discovered that the package had been signed for, but not by him.
“A customer service operative told me that the driver had forged my signature on his electronic device,” says Thomas. “When his managers questioned him he first claimed that he had handed the package to a middle-aged woman of Mediterranean appearance. He then changed his story and said a young blonde had received it. I can assure you I do not fit either description and his GPS data shows he was nowhere near my property on the delivery date.”
Thomas claims Yodel refused to address his complaint. And the online retailer would not refund him because Yodel showed the parcel as delivered.
On the other side of town, Callum Hanlon was awaiting delivery of a PlayStation 4 and accessories ordered from Argos. Yodel was the courier and Hanlon was able to track the progress of his parcel on its app. “When it showed that my address was next in line I kept close by my lounge window which overlooks the street,” he says. “I then received a text to say a delivery attempt had been made, but that I was not home.
“I arranged another delivery for the following working day; the same thing happened again. At no point was a delivery actually attempted. It took another four delivery attempts until the package arrived ripped open, with one item missing and the other boxes all damaged. I was charged £1 a minute to call Yodel’s customer service from my mobile and I was kept on hold for 34 minutes only to be told that Yodel couldn’t help.”
Argos later refunded him the cost of the missing item.
The surge in online shopping has meant a huge increase in the number of parcels in transit and since Royal Mail’s monopoly on postal services ended in 2006 the market has been flooded with firms offering cheap alternatives.
Cheapness can prove costly, however. This year Yodel was rated the worstperforming delivery firm for the second time in a survey by website Moneysavingexpert, with 57% of those questioned describing their experience as poor. Customers can’t easily avoid it, however, since few online retailers allow a say in which delivery company will be used to send a purchase and big players, such as Amazon and Argos, continue to use Yodel to keep costs down.
Unlike Royal Mail, overseen by communications regulator Ofcom, Yodel and other rival companies are unregulated. There is no ombudsman to arbitrate complaints and the Postal Redress Service, run by the dispute resolution consultancy CEDR, only accepts complaints against regulated member companies, unless a non-member agrees to be bound by its decision.
The Alternative Dispute Resolution Scheme for Communications invites dissatisfied customers to refer unresolved issues with unregulated couriers and postal companies but there’s a problem. It can only deal with firms that have signed up to its scheme. Currently none are named on its website and it hasn’t responded to our request for a list of members.
This leaves customers whose goods don’t turn up powerless. In fact, under law they are not even customers because the courier’s contract is with the sender, and only they can lodge a claim. A retailer is legally responsible for a parcel until it reaches its destination, but if the courier insists it has been delivered they are likely to refuse a refund.
Yodel says that it has invested heavily in improving its service. “We deliver 145m parcels each year and have consistently averaged 82% positive feedback in our ongoing customer survey over the last six months,” it says. “The Institute of Customer Service’s UK Satisfaction Index shows us to be one of the most improved organisations in the last year.”
It says that it is investigating Thomas’s allegation of theft and fraud. “Appropriate action will be taken in due course,” it adds. “Data protection laws mean we are unable to give the customer the driver’s details, however, we will fully support the authorities with any investigation, should he wish to contact the police.” Gearbest has now agreed to refund the cost of the goods.
As for Hanlon, Yodel says that it made repeated attempts to deliver the parcel because of “difficulties” and has now offered to refund the cost of his calls as a gesture of goodwill.
Consumer help website Resolver says complaints against delivery companies have risen 48% in the last year. One woman discovered, two months later, that a missing parcel had been flung onto her garage roof. Rubbish bins are proving popular hiding places when no one is at home, but are often emptied by the council before the package is found.
“The numbers are unbelievable – nearly 10,000 complaints in three years,” says Resolver founder James Walker.
“It is clear the industry is in desperate need of tougher regulation and an ombudsman scheme. Too often we see retailers passing the buck on to contractors. This is both unacceptable and wrong. If you contact a business to deliver a package, it’s their responsibility to make sure they do it properly.”
Daria White of London ordered a fancy dress costume from Costumes Hire Direct. Delivery was guaranteed for the following day, but it was four days before Parcelforce Worldwide showed up, by which time the event she needed the costume for had been and gone. “I’ve asked Costumes Hire Direct to refund me and they referred me to their terms and conditions which state that they are not liable for late delivery whatever the reason,” says White. This clause may be unlawful since the Consumer Rights Act 2015 holds the retailer liable for the timely arrival of goods.
Michael Edgar, a commercial solicitor at Laytons, says: “Where a trader has committed to certain timescales in its terms, it is bound to meet them; where no fixed date has been set, services – such as costume hire – must be performed within a ‘reasonable’ time. If a costume hire company advertised next-day delivery, and the costume was delivered several days late, then this could breach the requirement, and the consumer could have a claim.”
Costumes Hire Direct tells the Observer that it is the victim of incompetent postal services. “Parcelforce informed us that their depot had had some problems which meant a lot of parcels were not delivered,” it says. It insists that its terms and conditions absolve it of responsibility. But Parcelforce has now agreed to refund the £140 hire charge and add £30 in goodwill.
At the heart of the problem is our unwillingness to pay costly delivery charges. Many of the firms that undercut Royal Mail use self-employed drivers who fund their fuel and are paid per delivery. There is an incentive, then, to hurl a package over a hedge rather than waste time waiting at the door and the electronic devices, which make even authentic signatures look fake, make fraud less detectable.
Martin Lewis, founder of Moneysavingexpert, which began its annual survey of delivery firms four years ago, says customers must “complain to the retailer and make them justify why they use firms with dire reputations. If they won’t, we must stop buying online from firms using crap services.”
‘It is clear the industry is in desperate need of tougher regulations … too often retailers are passing the buck’ James Walker, Resolver website
Delivery firm Yodel is rated the worst performer, with 57% of customers describing its service as poor.