United Parcel Service Scores on Interception

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted May 17, 2007

United Parcel Service, more commonly known as UPS, opened a new front in the war of technological one-upmanship with other national couriers recently when it introduced Delivery Intercept, a Web-based service that allows customers to put a stop on a delivery and change the destination or have the shipment held or brought back. They can stop a delivery right up to the point the driver is getting out of his van and walking up to the receiver’s door.

The service costs $10, but UPS bills the customer only if the delivery is successfully intercepted.

The company claims it’s the only such service available. Delivery Intercept is made possible by UPS’s state-of-the-art Package Flow Technology, which uses bar-code tagging and automated route-planning and truck-packing. UPS knows the location of each shipment -- and where it’s headed next -- at literally every point in its journey. This includes the shipment's precise location within the company's own huge facilities and even the shipment's position within the trucks and vans.

Mistakes Happen
How often do customers need to intercept deliveries? More often than you might think. You send out the wrong product, or direct it to the wrong destination – or the destination changes after the package goes out the door. Or, more crucially, you discover the receiver’s credit isn’t quite as good as you thought.

Beljen Mills Inc., a maker of high-end, European-style tapestries in High Point, North Carolina, is a fairly typical customer of the new service. When the company’s UPS sales rep told Beljen founder and president Brian Bunch about Delivery Intercept, he immediately saw the value. “I said, ‘Gosh, where have you been with this? Why has nobody had it before now,’” Bunch said.

Beljen, launched seven years ago, is a surprisingly tech-savvy firm given its old-world product line. The company has only five full-time employees, three of them designers. It outsources weaving to one company, but owns the state-of-the-art computer-controlled weaving machines they use. And it outsources the finish sewing and shipping to another local company. It never actually touches the products it ships.

Reliability and Cost
Beljen Mills uses UPS exclusively to deliver the custom-produced tapestries to furniture and home decorating retailers and interior designers. “Reliability is a big factor,” Bunch said of the decision to go with UPS. “But like any business, we watch our costs. Between those two [factors], UPS offers a good balance. It’s also fairly easy to use. With the online tracking we know exactly where the product is at all times.”

Beljen uses UPS WorldShip, comprehensive software that allows it to go online and fill in bills of lading, request pick-ups and track packages – and now request a Delivery Intercept. The process is simple. You click on the 1Z tracking number in the list of packages the system is tracking and request an intercept. You can ask UPS to hold the package at a depot, send it back or redirect it to a different address.

Customers can also use other UPS online services such as CampusShip and Internet Shipping, or make intercept requests through their MyUPS.com account or via UPS Signature Tracking. “In the past,” Bunch said, “we lost control of a shipment when it left our door. This now gives us control of the goods until we absolutely want to release them.”

He saw two ways he could use the new service. Sometimes, an interior designer will buy product and, after Beljen has already shipped the item, the designer decides that it's more convenient to have the item arrive at his client's premises instead of his own. With Delivery Intercept, he can accommodate them. “It just means I can offer a little better service to my customers,” Bunch said. He has already used Delivery Intercept two or three times in this kind of situation.

Stopping Fraud
The other circumstance where it comes in handy is a little “embarrassing,” Bunch said. Because the company is so focused on customer service and short on resources, it sometimes happens that a shipment is sent out before Beljen has had a chance to check the receiver’s credit card – and occasionally it turns out that the card is no good. Now Bunch can request a delivery intercept and either have UPS hold the package or return it.

“The ability to stop a shipment in those situations can save you some money if the person bought the product and had no intention of paying,” Bunch said. “UPS will hold it until the customer gives us a good card, or we'll have them bring it back if necessary. The worst case is we have to pay for a round trip, but that’s better than being out three to five thousand dollars.”

He admits he’s already used Delivery Intercept a couple of times in this situation. In the past, he would have had to send the account to a collections agency, which costs money and isn’t always successful. He has had “thousands, but not tens of thousands” of dollars in uncollected invoices in the past. Delivery Intercept should help reduce that, he said.

Before it started using the Package Flow technology, UPS offered preferred customers a manual package intercept service. A UPS employee would stand at the back of the transport truck when it arrived at the destination depot and visually search for the package as the truck was unloaded. It was time consuming and only successful about 60 percent of the time, said Stuart Marcus, product manager for UPS Delivery Intercept.

Flawless Interceptions
Today, any customer can use the new service and, because UPS knows where a shipment will be on the truck and where it will be routed within the destination facility, it’s relatively easy to intercept it and reroute it to an exceptions area. And because the company is in constant touch with route drivers over a wireless network, it can even intercept packages after they go out for delivery.

The service was officially launched at the end of March. Most requests have come from companies that shipped duplicate orders or discovered possible credit card problems, Marcus said. He did hear of one shipper who sent a package to a guest at a hotel. When the customer discovered the person had left earlier than expected, he had the delivery stopped and sent on to the person’s new location.

Marcus won’t say exactly how many delivery intercept requests the company is receiving, other than it’s “thousands a day.” This is not entirely surprising given that UPS handles about 14 million shipments a day. Still, there was clearly pent-up demand for the service.

He also won’t say how successful the company has been in stopping shipments. If the shipment is already out on a truck for delivery, it may not always be possible to stop it. Another UPS spokesperson said the success rate is in the 99 percent range. Marcus said only that the revenue the company is generating from the new services is “ahead of plan,” an indication that the intercept success rate is high, since UPS doesn’t charge if the intercept fails.

Bunch said the prices charged seem fair – $10 for the intercept, plus delivery fees if it has to come back to the shipper or go to another city. In fact, there’s nothing he doesn’t like about Delivery Intercept. “The concept seems to work so far,” he said.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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