Over the last few years we’ve become increasingly reliant on package delivery companies, largely as a result of the pandemic lockdowns and troubles on the high street.

There’s little doubt that courier companies are a real life-saver for many people. But they are also one of the most complained-about services in the UK, with hundreds of thousands of people seeking help every year.

Citizens Advice has just announced the results of its annual parcel delivery firm league table and in a damning overview of the industry, not one business scored higher than 3 out of 5 stars. Worryingly, half of all people who reported a problem with a delivery had further difficulties when trying to sort things out.

Sadly, delivery problems are likely to continue at record rates this year. So here’s an overview of your rights and what to watch out for.

Package delivery – the main things to remember

Let’s start with the basics. Though your natural instinct might be to take on the courier company when there’s a problem with the delivery, if it’s broken, damaged or just plain missing in action, you should be talking to the retailer.

When you make a purchase, your contract is with the shop, not the manufacturer or delivery firm. The retailer is responsible for getting the goods to you as advertised. They are also responsible for refunding you if there’s a problem (or arranging a replacement).

As a consequence, the delivery firm must answer to the retailer if there is a problem. The shop can make a pragmatic decision about whether to send you a replacement or call it quits and refund your account. They can also go through the tracking process with their contractor, so you should not be expected to go trekking about trying to find where the courier left your parcel.

Many retailers seem to be a bit inconsistent about this important obligation on them, despite it being the law. So just to make things crystal clear you are not responsible if:

  • The parcel is left with a neighbour or at an alternative location unless you have specifically authorised this.
  • The package is left somewhere that you haven’t specified and subsequently gets damaged or pinched.
  • The goods are broken or damaged and you’ve not opened the parcel in front of the courier (this is often cited as a reason to decline a refund by shops incorrectly).
  • If the parcel is left in a communal area – particularly if it’s accessible to your neighbours or strangers.

Of course, if you’ve sent the parcel, then you do have to deal with the delivery firm (more on that later).

Safe spaces

Many disputes over deliveries arise over the ‘safe space’. I don’t mean a place where sensitive students can avoid challenging opinions – it’s the place where you specify it’s okay to leave a parcel or package.

By far the greatest volume of complaints come from items left outside of doors, in the foyer of blocks of flats or even chucked vaguely at a home. Every year I’m contacted by people who have found that their precious packages have been lobbed over garden walls, left in recycling bins (surprisingly common) or non-to-subtly been stashed under doormats like a box wearing a toupee. I once spoke to a woman whose missing order of vintage books was discovered on top of her carport four months after she ordered it. She had to hit the package with a broom to return it to earth. Sadly, the books did not survive the elements.

A courier company should ensure that the parcel is placed in your hands unless otherwise specified. However, given the pile of 20 Amazon parcels that I’ve just walked past in the foyer of my flats in London, this rule is still not being adhered widely adhered to.

A word of warning though. If you’ve previously set a safe space when you last bought something, those instructions are likely to still be saved with the shop. So always check everything before you make the final purchase. You might have forgotten one-off instructions you gave a few years ago that no longer apply.

What if a business claims the delivery has been made?

Most people have experienced the frustration of a delivery card shoved through a letterbox or stuck on a wall when they’ve been in all day, waiting for the doorbell to go. Annoying though this is, it’s usually relatively straightforward to book a redelivery through the website.

However, in recent years, there has been a rise in complaints about proof of delivery. I’ve seen some pretty outlandish examples of fake signatures in my time, including one supposedly signed by my six year old niece.

It’s pretty easy to dispute a fake signature – after all, the courier won’t know what yours looks like. Photos are a little more challenging if you’ve said its okay to leave an item outside your door. Remember that most digital pictures are time coded these days, so don’t be afraid to push back and ask for more evidence if the retailer or delivery firm claims the delivery was made.

You may occasionally open your door to see the courier running off in to the distance. The people who actually make the deliveries often have insane targets, so spare a thought for them – there’s a reason why they just treated you to a modern version of ‘knock and run’. But regardless of whether you are in or out – a photo of a parcel by your door doesn’t mean you received it.

As an aside, the more people dispute parcels being left randomly, the more items will get returned and costs will go rise. So unless you are largely home-based, consider using one of the various drop off or pick up locations – especially if you’ve ordered something valuable.

Getting in touch

Contacting courier firms is the single most frustrating issue from a customer service perspective. Some businesses seem to have automated every possible way of communicating with them, including a telephone service in one instance I’ve seen. I think this is pretty outrageous and I’d urge any business looking at contracting a delivery company to refuse to work with any firm that doesn’t have a readily accessible customer service team.

Regulator Ofcom is currently investigating a number of aspects of the package delivery sector and issued guidance on how these businesses needed to improve here: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/news-centre/2022/stronger-protections-and-fairer-treatment-for-parcel-customers There’s no free ombudsman for now, though we are campaigning for this to change soon.

Private sellers

Another growing area of complaint comes from people buying and selling things on online marketplaces, like eBay. Remember you have fewer rights if you are buying from a private seller (though you do still have some protections). Most of the complaints I see arise from disputes over returns and sending goods. Make sure you check and follow the delivery and returns rules on the website to the letter – photoing the process might seem a bit OTT, but it helps too. eBay and PayPal have buyer / seller dispute processes too if there’s a problem.

If you’re the seller, then it’s vital that you follow the postage instructions too. I’ve been flooded with calls in recent months from angry sellers who have reported that the buyer has stolen goods, claiming they have not been sent in the parcel. There are a few gaps in some online marketplace T&Cs that can sometimes allow unscrupulous members of the public to try it on. So if you are selling goods, check the buyer/seller dispute policy and make sure you also document the packaging and sending process too.

Returns and your rights

Of course, when you get your hands on a parcel, it might not be what your ordered, or faulty. So check out my Times Money Mentor guide to returns and your rights too! https://www.thetimes.co.uk/money-mentor/article/can-i-get-my-money-back-on-a-faulty-item-after-the-30-day-returns-period/

How the package delivery sector could make things better, in three easy steps

I’ve been talking about delivery companies on the radio this week and have had to listen to some rather defensive ‘right to replies’ – which suggests to me that many businesses aren’t interested in taking on board these criticisms. Yet it’s actually pretty easy to solve this tidal wave of complaints.

So just in case any courier companies are reading this column, All you need to do is:

  • Have customer service phone lines where people can speak to actual human beings.
  • Stop giving your delivery drivers unrealistic targets.
  • Follow the delivery instructions.

Call me naive, but I don’t think that’s too much to ask or hard to achieve?

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

Parcel delivery: Can I get a refund if my order doesn’t come?

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