Black Friday is here: Who is paying for your delivery?

22 November 2018 | Anna Triponel

You’ve probably only just realised from the barrage of promotional emails you’ve received this week that Black Friday is upon us once again. But retailers and logistics companies have been preparing for this day for months.

As you press “click” on your latest bargain, spare a thought for those who will be knocking at hundreds of doors tomorrow, handing over package after package. Black Friday is the busiest day of the year for couriers, delivery drivers, logistics companies and retailers across the world, and this year it could be the most ‘online’ retail day ever.

During Black Friday last year in the UK, Amazon sold close to 90 items per second and a lorry left one of the company’s delivery centres every 1 minute 33 seconds. This year, approximately £1.54 billion could be spent online during Black Friday — an increase of over 13% as compared to last year.

What do we know about the logistics behind these purchases? What do we know about the driver transporting packages between warehouses overnight, the manager organising the surge in parcels, and the courier hurriedly navigating busy streets to make our promised time slot?

We know that a number value their work. When asked recently, my local courier responded that it was the only job that enabled her to work while spending time with her disabled son. We know that a number have jobs this weekend – an extra 49,000 seasonal staff were hired across Royal Mail, Argos and Amazon to help with the volume of orders last year.

But we also know that this is the most challenging time of year for those working in the logistics sector. Last year, Royal Mail workers voted to stage a 48-hour strike in a dispute over pensions, pay and jobs. This year, DPD parcel couriers in Glasgow are planning a strike to protest against rate cuts and in memory of Don Lane – a DPD courier who died after missing important hospital appointments during the peak delivery season last year.

What does this have to do with us? Two words: free shipping. We all love free shipping. We are ready to pay a higher price for an item, so long as the delivery is ‘free.’ We buy more products if this means we can qualify for ‘free’ shipping.

But of course, shipping can never be free. Consider the number of people and the tremendous organisation it takes to get your product from the warehouse kilometres away to your doorstep in a matter of hours. It takes over 6 people to ensure that just one Black Friday package is delivered the next day.

So if your shipping is free, ask yourself: who is paying for it? Is this ‘free’ shipping priced into the cost of the product? Or does the retailer turn around and ask its logistics provider to provide the fastest delivery service possible for the lowest price? And can the logistics provider push back, or does it in turn pass the low cost and speed of delivery onto its workers? For many years, we’ve recognised the detrimental impacts on workers that retailers can have when pushing down prices in manufacturing supply chains, but we pay less attention when we see a similar dynamic in the delivery of those very same goods.

But this challenge is not insurmountable.

In one conversation I had recently, distribution companies were telling me that they had created a costing model with their retailers where they calculated together how much distribution should cost to enable distributors to pay decent wages to their workers and get a small profit on deliveries. While this model had increased the cost of delivery in the short term, it was ultimately more cost-effective for retailers since the distribution network had become more resilient.

You may not realise it, but as a consumer, you do have the power to change the way business gets done. I’ve seen companies move mountains in response to customer questions. One company I worked with got asked on Facebook “Do you have homeworkers in your supply chain?” and, when it realised it could not answer, undertook an extensive supply chain mapping exercise across India. In a better known example, a number of companies removed micro plastic beads from their beauty products after consumers showed that they cared.

So take two minutes this Black Friday. Send the retailer you’re buying from a question through the ‘contact us’ email address, directly to the customer representative or through social media. What do you know about your logistics providers’ approach to decent working conditions? How do you know as a retailer that your volumes, timescales and price points are adequate to ensure logistics companies can treat their workers decently? Once the craziness of Black Friday has passed, they might respond to you. More importantly, your question could empower those in the company who are already seeking to push this forward.

With predictions that 95% of sales will be done online within the next 20 years, we all have a role to play in helping to shape a sustainable logistics sector premised on decent working conditions for all.

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