While you were out

Are you already looking forward to this year’s Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and subsequent Frustrated Fortnight?

Assuming that you last year succumbed to the many temptations to buy everything from absinthe to a Peppa Pig xylophone, how long did you have to wait before they were all delivered? One of the puzzling paradoxes of online shopping is that customer gratification, by way of grasping shiny new things, is most delayed, whilst customer anxiety, with near-instant payment pain and frustration pending delivery, is maximised. Seen in those terms, online retailing should not work.

If I recall correctly, when I read news of Amazon Prime Air, its intended drone delivery service, I was waiting in for what seemed more like Amazon Prime Mule – yet another purchase promised as ’your delivery date: Thursday’ which by Saturday had clearly been doomed to go awry. Last year was no better, wasting hours and days staying in hoping for packages to arrive. The moment that we finally had to go out for essentials, we would return to pick up the dreaded Missed Delivery card shoved through the letterbox.

There has been some improvement in the last year or two. One UK carrier, DPD, can now inform you of a one-hour delivery window, when everything works fine. Inevitably on the days that you need this information most, their tracking system seems to be having a migraine and is unable to even tell you that it is out for delivery. It is also unique to DPD, so does not apply to Parcelforce, Royal Mail, UPS, DHL, Yodel, or others.

One of the reasons that I upgraded to Yosemite early, before I was fully confident that all my key apps would still work properly, was the lure of Deliveries (App Store), an excellent app which attempts to track inbound parcels and warn you when they are due. Although the app is sometimes bizarrely amusing – at present it knows there is a book in transit at a delivery centre in Ipswich, but I am sure that should be in Suffolk, not near Brisbane – it also seems to be struggling against systems which are deliberately discooperative.

Some major online retailers such as Amazon use a single order number to refer to separate despatches, others may be merged in transit, or simply misreferenced altogether. The information given often varies according to the means used to track a parcel: at one stage, one item had three different delivery forecasts, depending on whether I believed Amazon, the carrier’s tracking service, or the information gleaned and interpreted by Deliveries.

It is in the carriers’ interests to make tracking as accurate and effortless as possible, so that more deliveries will succeed first time. What they need to do is agree a common query language which will help apps like Deliveries keep us fully informed as to the progress of purchases in transit.

Their own individual offerings are of little help. For example, I went through a protracted and weirdly paranoid registration process to join UPS MyChoiceⓇ, only to discover that it did not after all give me any more useful information, such as a time slot, for forthcoming deliveries. Retailers and carriers alike offer us a stream of text messages, but these still fall short of answering that vital question: when will my parcel be delivered?

Apps like Deliveries are ideal, as they can check tracking information efficiently, at appropriate intervals, and push news to us as necessary. The case for co-operation between carriers and software developers is compelling, and can only benefit online retailers too. I don’t want a drone or dromedary, just decent advance warning of a delivery time slot so that I can plan it into my day.

Updated from the original, which was submitted for publication in MacUser volume 31 issue 3, 2015, but never appeared.