The Privilege of Overnight Delivery

Philip Berne - Oct 14, 2010, 1:30pm CDT
The Privilege of Overnight Delivery

I’ve been waiting for a FedEx package for a couple days now. This is one of the best parts of being a technology journalist. Often, I get notice that something cool is coming my way, and I track it online and wait for it in my pajamas like I’m a kid on Christmas morning. Only, for me, Christmas morning happens about a dozen times a month, more or less. Today, I’m waiting for a package that was scheduled to arrive at 3PM yesterday. This one wasn’t urgent. In fact, I’m not even allowed to tell you what’s in the package until some time next week (and now I’ve said too much), so there’s no tight deadline. But I realized this morning, after getting off the phone with FedEx, that of all the companies I deal with, professionally and personally (the gadget companies, the cell phone carriers, the banks, the car mechanics and home appliance repair shops, etc.) I’ve had consistently the worst time with overnight shipping. I’ve had a better lifetime experience with Bank of America and Sprint than I have with FedEx and UPS.

[Image credit LordFerguson]

The conversation I had this morning was kind of funny. I wasn’t angry. Like I said, there’s no immediate rush. I just called and asked where my package was. The operator told me it had been misplaced in Nashville, but now it is on a truck here in north Texas. I could see most of that from the FedEx Web site.

“So, when will it be here?” I asked. Because of the sensitive nature of the package, there is a signature requirement attached. So, I have to wait at home until I get it. I’d rather be out testing phones, making calls, taking pictures and such.

“It will be delivered by 3PM today, guaranteed.”

Okay, I’m calling shenanigans.

“Why do I have to wait until 3PM? It was supposed to be delivered yesterday by 3PM.”

“Right. That is the quoted time, so that’s when it will be delivered.” In other words, when the package finally arrived in Texas late last night, it wasn’t sorted into the 8AM pile or the 10:30AM pile. The package had 3PM written on it, so that’s where it went.

“But, it was supposed to be here by 3PM yesterday!? So, if you can’t make it here by then, shouldn’t it just get to me as soon as possible?”

“Yes, we will deliver the package as soon as possible. By 3PM today.”

Apparently, that 3PM guarantee is written in stone. The actual day of delivery is more malleable, so if they can’t deliver by 3PM Wednesday, you’ll definitely have it by 3PM some other day. They guarantee it.

Finally, the customer service rep saw things my way. She offered to call the local FedEx station. I was placed on hold. After a long wait, she came back to tell me that the FedEx station could not get hold of the driver. They would keep trying, and when they finally reached him or her, they would give me a call directly.

I don’t know when you last ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut, but the experience has changed dramatically. From the minute you place your order, you know exactly the progress of your pizza. Has someone seen your order? Has it been started yet? Is it cooking? How close is the driver to your house? All of these questions are answered with the automated system online. Pizza Hut can account for the whereabouts of every last pepperoni on a $12 pizza I ordered a half hour ago.

FedEx cannot tell me the location or estimated arrival time, within an 8 hour window, on a $600 cell phone that was shipped two days ago. They can’t figure out where the package is currently. They can’t even get the driver on the phone. Unfortunately, FedEx drivers are not allowed to carry cell phones. They must communicate by carrier pigeon, and it takes those pigeons a long time to find the right FedEx truck.

This is nonsense, but of course it seems selfish and even over-privileged to complain about such things. I’m reminded of the great Louis C.K. bit (you can find a safe for work version here on YouTube) where he basically says everything is amazing and nothing impresses us any more. Things that would have floored us last week, we’re now whining about today.

When I was a kid, the idea of sending a package from California to Baltimore overnight, for less than $30, was unthinkable. Heck, I barely had any friends outside my local area code because long distance calls were too expensive. You moved to New Jersey? Sorry, I can only talk to you once a month, for a half hour each time.

Also, by the very nature of my expectations, of course FedEx will become the object of my ire more often. When the bank or the cell phone company screws up, I know it’s going to be a hassle to deal with them, but if I can get the bill settled before my mortgage payment is due, it won’t be a huge problem. When FedEx screws up, something that I really needed (usually really wanted, rather) by noon today won’t arrive until later in the afternoon, maybe even tomorrow.

But I really wanted it now. It already seems unfair that I can’t just have my new camera beamed to me directly from Japan. I’ve already waited while it made the trip through Alaska, Indiana and on down to Texas. Now I have to wait a few hours more?

FedEx deals in two commodities. They deal in time, which has itself become a commodity of money, instead of the inverse. We should think of money as time. Instead, time is money. Time has intrinsic value, and no matter what, we have less and less as we live our lives. Money only has value when we transform it or use it for other purposes. When the world ends, would you rather have a pile of money, or a pile of beans? Personally, I’d rather just have a lot of time left.

FedEx also deals in things. Things stuffed in boxes. Sure, those things may have value, but that value is all potential until we open the boxes and take out the things inside. Until then, the joy of the FedEx truck isn’t just receiving the actual thing you ordered, it’s also the contemporary joy in acquiring new things. I can prove it, too.

Have you ever gotten a FedEx package that you weren’t expecting? Did it make you feel happy? I get unexpected packages from time to time, and I’m always happy to receive them. Then I realize it’s a carpet sample my wife ordered, or a replacement power adapter for an old gadget. But until I know what’s inside, I’m almost unconditionally excited, in a happy way, over receiving the package. It was sent overnight. It must be interesting.

The exception to this rule, of course, is documents. I’m never excited to see a document envelope from FedEx. Nothing good is ever sent overnight. If it’s that good, we don’t need paperwork. Papers that require immediate perusal are always bad news.

My point is that I admit complaining about a late FedEx delivery is the height of privilege. But where’s my package? I could think of a dozen ways and a dozen cool tools that would help me figure this out with pinpoint accuracy and timing. Can you imagine the headache that would cause FedEx? If, instead of calling to ask where my package is, I call to ask if I can intercept the driver, who is only 5 miles away, and have him deliver my goods in a parking lot nearby? Besides the rush of annoyingly informed customers, there are obvious security concerns, too.

I just wish they would be honest about it. They can’t get in touch with the driver? Really? Because I have a great gadget to help with that problem. Unfortunately, that gadget is sitting in a box, “On FedEx Vehicle for Delivery.”

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