Last mile transport: the role of the couriers working for parcel delivery firms

Science topics June 2013 CityTransport

Reinhard Gressel, Researcher - AME Department, SPLOTT Laboratory

In the case of e-commerce, the commercialisation cycle ends with delivery of the goods to the customer. This link in the chain is the responsibility of couriers who work for the parcel delivery companies. The end leg of the transport of goods that have been ordered online and, more broadly, goods that involve distance selling, depends on the work of these couriers.


Organising working time

The starting point of the courier’s round is the parcel delivery company’s local agency where the consignments sent by the other agencies and hubs in the network have arrived during the night. In the very early hours of the day, these consignments are sorted in order to form the delivery rounds that will be made from the agency. These sorting operations are either conducted by specialised workers or the couriers themselves.

As soon as the parcels and letters are received, with their delivery order (very often recorded on portable tablet computers), the couriers put the packets in the correct order for their round and load them onto their vehicle. Putting the consignments for delivery in the correct order is extremely important as it determines the efficiency of the delivery round. The ability to organise the delivery round effectively depends on the courier having precise knowledge of his or her delivery zone. This includes not only its topography (which route to take, traffic conditions, temporary difficulties, parking possibilities, etc.), but also the times of day when the customers want to receive the deliveries (for example, before 9 am or before midday).


Rounds that depend on the type of recipient

The delivery round proper then begins, with an initial drive, whose length is variable, to the delivery zone. In general, driving time rarely accounts for more than 30% of the total duration of the round. The couriers’ work therefore mostly consists of taking parcels and letters from the van and walking (or more often running) from the parking space to find the recipient and hand over the consignment or consignments which have to be signed for.

The recipients in question are of two types, first professional (firms, administrations, offices and shops, for example) which usually have specialised mail departments and which often receive this type of consignment, and second, private individuals who receive such deliveries on an irregular or occasional basis. As a group, the private persons are more difficult to deal with for the couriers, as they need to be informed in advance, located, found, identified and, sometimes, told about the attempted delivery when they are absent. This service takes a great deal of time and means the couriers must be very experienced and resourceful.

Depending on the geographical area, express delivery rounds have between 40 and 80 stops. The high levels of unpredictability, due to traffic problems and the need to locate and recognise the parcel recipients, mean the couriers are constantly having to reorganise their rounds.


The need to find one’s place among other road users

During their rounds, the couriers are impeded by other vehicles such as household refuse collection vehicles which sometimes block the road. They also have some allies, such as the couriers who work in the same area for other express parcel delivery firms. Although these are theoretically competitors, the two couriers can exchange information about the zone and they can even, unofficially, deliver each other’s parcels.

The fact that they wear uniforms and drive vehicles with their firm’s colours should not deceive us about their real status. In fact, they are very rarely employed by the express delivery company, and are usually self-employed contractors, or employed by another subcontractor.