Sunday, 15 November 2015

DHL – not again

I’ve been in the US for almost a month and had fun ordering things off the Internet – and even had some pleasant surprises when I found I could get cameras I was interested in cheaper in South Africa. What makes this specially surprising and pleasing is camera manufacturers do not honour warranties outside the country of sale on most models – a recipe for price gouging. Maybe they do overcharge for expensive models but entry-level Nikon DSLR cameras pretty sharply priced in South Africa (particularly with a few bundled lenses), as are some lightweight digitals (Canon in this case, I found to be well priced).

Mostly the experience has been good – things I ordered arrived promptly and were as advertised. Only one small glitch post-delivery so far: I ordered a book at a great price (through AbeBooks, not Amazon – I get to Amazon soon). It was advertised as an “international edition” and “NOT from Asia”. It turned out to be a cheap Indian edition, not for sale outside that region, and the packing wasn’t great either: it arrived with a split on the spine.

Otherwise, things went pretty well – good pricing, prompt delivery. I even managed to buy a Mac at a lower price than education discount.

Back in 2013, I had a whinge about how DHL was incompetent at delivering books to me from the US. I had tried to order books in time for a university-wide launch of books published that year, and I wanted copies to sell in case there was demand. Since there was limited time, I paid extra for priority delivery. To cut a long story short, I ended up with 3 boxes of books and the supplier refunded the cost.

Why? DHL’s idea of international priority shipping was to get the books to Europe then dump them into the mail system as “Surface Air Lift”, a non-priority service with no tracking.

Let me be clear here: I a talking about DHL as a contractor for bulk budget shipping; when they do courier service at full price, they seem to do a whole lot better.

On this visit to the US, I have bought a number of things mostly from Amazon. Amazon has a network of delivery providers around the country and their less expensive services usually drop the package into the postal system at the last step. So far most things have arrived either at the earlier stage of the delivery window or before. Now I am drawing towards the close of my visit, I have one more item that is not going via one of Amazon’s priority services, with a delivery window of 17 November–3 December. This is a tad concerning as I am out of here 20 November. I only really started to worry though when I saw DHL was handling it.

Look what they’ve done so far.
Example of DHL US routing. Left: the DHL tracking site; each map panel illustrates a step of the routing.
The item originated in Jefferson City, TN. The destination is Ann Arbor, MI, near the top of the map (close to Detroit).

Look at the first step: it goes the wrong way, to Forest Park, GA – 2 days after it enters the system. Maybe this would make sense if this was the nearest airport but the delays between departures and arrivals are more typical of road transport. Then, a day later, it finds its way to Hebron, KY. Now, at least, it is going the right way. Then what do they do? Give it to the United States Postal Service. It has taken them the better part of 4 days after it left home base to shift it from the zone where USPS first class mail would take 3 days to deliver to where it would take USPS first class mail 2 days to deliver it.

An investment of 4 days to save 1 day is not actually a win.

The last map panel shows the stage of journey that USPS will handle – not all that close to the destination. It makes you wonder what the benefit is for Amazon in using DHL at all. True, the shipping cost is less than first class mail, but other Amazon providers I used up to now at least got the item to the same state before handing it to USPS or even delivered it the whole way.

So what if it gets here after I leave? It was fortunately not an expensive item – a second hand book. I am still a little hopeful as USPS since I started writing this has updated status and it is in Ann Arbor already, been sorted and sent to the final post office, a whole lot quicker than DHL has handled it.

I have to wonder about what DHL is up to. Delivering stuff is what they do. Why can’t they do it more efficiently than this? If even the much-maligned USPS is more efficient than them, shouldn’t they work out what their problem is?


The package arrived a day earlier than Amazon’s original estimate. I still wonder how DHL manages to be less efficient than the US Postal Service and stay in business. All’s well that ends well, I suppose. Here’s USPS’s final update:

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