Ho Ho No: How UK Delivery Firms Drop the Ball on Holiday Deliveries – Year After Year….

About The Writer

My name is Joshua Thompson. I’ve personally worked as a delivery courier for over 20 years, across 3 different companies, so I possess a wealth of insider knowledge about mail and courier companies. As a result, I know all the UPS(pun intended) and downs of this industry.

The holiday season is the busiest time of year for delivery companies in the UK. However, despite months of preparation, major carriers like Royal Mail, Evri, DPD and DHL struggle to meet customer demand during this peak period year after year. There are several key factors that contribute to these recurring holiday delivery issues.

Surge in Online Shopping Overwhelms Networks

The rise of e-commerce has led to exponential growth in holiday package volumes that overwhelm delivery networks. According to IMRG, online retail sales in November and December are around 30% higher compared to the rest of the year. Events like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the December rush for last-minute gifts see massive spikes in orders.

For example, Royal Mail expects to deliver over 500 million parcels in December 2022 alone. That’s double its business as usual volumes. This deluge of parcels floods delivery networks that are designed to handle much lower daily volumes across sorting centers, transportation routes and delivery operations.

Carriers consistently underestimate the scale of surge every year despite having data from prior holiday seasons. The sheer volume of orders severely strains capacity across sorting, transportation and last mile delivery.

Winter Weather Disruptions

December brings winter weather that frequently disrupts delivery operations across the UK. Icy roads make driving conditions hazardous while heavy snow can completely shut down transportation routes. Flooding also causes major issues.

Royal Mail directly warns customers that severe snow or icy conditions can cause delays to collection and delivery in impacted areas. Even mildrain and wind can slow down delivery times.

When poor weather hits peak season, carriers are unable to reroute parcels or recover schedules. The backlogs make it impossible to keep up with customer orders. Years with exceptionally bad winter weather around Christmas lead to more severe holiday delivery delays.

Persistent Staffing Shortages

To meet increased holiday demand, postal companies need to significantly expand their workforce during peak season. They hire large numbers of temporary seasonal workers to bolster capacity.

However, recruitment struggles year after year leave many peak season positions unfilled. For example, Royal Mail planned to hire 20,000 seasonal workers in 2021 but only achieved 75% of that target due to shortages.

Difficulty securing labor is driven by multiple factors including Brexit impacting worker availability, lingering effects of COVID-19, and tight market conditions making seasonal roles less attractive. Regardless of the reasons, staffing shortages directly reduce the workforce available to process, transport and deliver holiday parcels.

With fewer staff compared to peak volumes, packages get stuck in warehouses waiting to be sorted, transported and delivered. Customers experience delays as short-staffed postal companies struggle to keep up.

Infrastructure Constraints

UK delivery networks are not designed to smoothly manage the massive spike in volumes that occur during the holiday peak season.

For example, Royal Mail’s sorting centers can only process so many parcels per day before volumes overwhelm their infrastructure. During seasonal peaks, daily intake exceeds this capacity by millions of parcels per day. The resulting backlogs lead to delays as centers hit their limits.

While companies do expand infrastructure ahead of holidays, adding capacity is costly and difficult to justify for short seasonal demand. Sorting centers cannot simply double capacity for a few weeks each year. As online volumes grow, carriers are perpetually behind the infrastructure needed for new demand levels.

Overwhelmed Customer Service Teams

As customers track delayed packages, call centers get completely overwhelmed by surging volume. For example, Evri receives over a million customer inquiries daily during the holiday peak season.

With limited staff, call centers are unable to handle this flood of customers checking on delayed deliveries. Call wait times jump to hours or even days. Many inquiries go unanswered which adds to customer frustration.

Some carriers like DPD stopped offering phone support in December 2021 due to call volumes spiking up to 400% above normal. With no way to get through by phone, customers with delivery issues have no recourse to obtain help or information.

Last Mile Capacity Limits

During the holidays, the last mile of delivery becomes a major bottleneck. There are only so many vans and drivers available for local delivery routes.

With parcel volumes spiking, carriers hit maximum route capacity for neighborhood and residential deliveries. Daily volumes simply exceed the vehicles and drivers available, forcing some parcels to be left behind at depots.

Without enough last mile capacity, carriers struggle to complete deliveries even if parcels make it through sorting centers on time. Last mile constraints leave many holiday shoppers empty handed.

Poor Volume Forecasting

To properly plan for peak demand, carriers rely on customer volume forecasts. However, projections often fall far short of actual order intake.

For example, Evri expected 131 million packages in December 2021. The actual figure was much higher at around 200 million. With volumes massively exceeding forecasts, holiday operations quickly fall behind.

Even sophisticated data analytics cannot account for variables like severe weather disruptions. Understated projections result in inadequate infrastructure, staffing and logistics to handle actual demand.

Lack of Flexible Delivery Models

In other countries, carriers leverage alternative delivery models to help absorb insane holiday order spikes.

For example, US carriers extensively use independent contractors to supplement their fleets during peak season. On-demand drivers provide flexible capacity to handle overflow volumes.

However, UK delivery companies remain reluctant to pursue “gig economy” delivery models. Without this flexible capacity, carriers cannot scale up operations in response to variable demand swings.

Relying only on existing infrastructure and permanent staff makes responding to massive volume surges nearly impossible, especially when forecasts underestimate volumes.

Prioritizing Speed Over Reliability

To compete on fast delivery, some carriers intentionally overload networks to achieve speed at the cost of reliability.

For example, promising next day service for all holiday orders spreads delivery volume across fewer days. This tactic overextends capacity to hit aggressive delivery targets.

While emphasizing speed may drive more parcel revenue, it comes at the cost of higher failure rates during seasonal peaks. Overpromising on unreliable delivery windows damages customer trust.

UK carriers should reassess the tradeoffs between speed and reliability during peak demand. Slower, more achievable targets could ease pressure on strained networks.

Difficulty Adapting to Disruptions

During normal operations, carriers route parcels efficiently based on available capacity, volume patterns and fleet availability.

Holiday peaks bring unpredictability that strains these optimized systems. Disruptions like customs delays, winter weather, staff shortages and inventory issues require rapid manual intervention.

With volumes already overflowing, carriers cannot adjust operational plans fast enough to manage anomalies. Deliveries fall through the cracks when unforeseen disruptions overwhelm standard delivery procedures.

Lack of Transparency Around Delays

When major delays threaten to ruin holiday deliveries, carriers avoid being transparent with customers. Vague delivery statuses fail to provide clarity when parcels go days or weeks past promised dates.

Without transparency on the scale of delays, customers cannot make alternative plans. Meanwhile, customer service agents rarely have insights beyond basic tracking information.

Proactively communicating with customers about holiday challenges could improve perception of carriers struggling to deliver. Setting realistic expectations protects loyalty rather than overpromising and under-delivering.

Financial Incentives Discourage Improvement

With profitability tied directly to parcel volumes, carriers focus more on taking in as much holiday demand as possible versus improving reliability and service.

The financial upside of maximizing throughput motivates carriers to overload networks beyond capacity. Investing to prevent delays cuts into record revenue potential.

Until incentives shift to reward customer experience over volumes, companies will continue overpromising to drive holiday sales at the expense of quality service.

Difficulty Retaining Seasonal Staff

To scale up over the holidays, postal companies hire thousands of temporary seasonal workers. However, retention within this critical workforce has proven difficult.

Seasonal delivery roles often require overtime hours with demanding targets. Meanwhile, permanent job opportunities remain scarce once seasonal contracts end in January.

With fewer financial incentives and career prospects, seasonal staff turnover remains high. Rebuilding workforce capacity year after year slows progress on improving holiday operations.

Lack of Accountability for Failures

While holiday delivery woes spark consumer outrage yearly, carriers face little accountability or consequences. Delayed parcels still drive massive revenues.

Regulators levy no fines or penalties for chronically missed targets. With no repercussions, carriers are disincentivized from making the costly changes needed to truly fix peak season capacity constraints.

Until carriers pay a real reputational or financial price for failure, service levels will remain status quo.

Looking Ahead

The combination of these various factors creates a perfect storm every holiday that catches UK delivery companies off guard. While carriers do expand capacity, peak demand grows faster than infrastructure, staffing and logistics can keep pace.

To improve holiday performance, UK carriers need better demand forecasting, expanded last mile capacity through on-demand drivers, upgraded infrastructure, increased temporary workforce retention, and greater transparency around delays.

However, adjusting business models to reliably handle short seasonal peaks remains a tough financial sell. Until Company leadership decides to prioritize service over sales, UK residents should expect more holiday delivery headaches for years to come.

Advice From Our Mascot Bear Max The Mailer For Courier Companies

• Ensure that you have an adequate number of staff members. The job is ideal for university students who have breaks from their studies
• Remember that the nature of holiday deliveries entails the possibility to both gain and lose very loyal customers
• Inquire with your biggest customers before the holidays to get a necessary capacity estimate

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