It's December, which for a lot of people means basically giving up any prospect of doing work for the next few weeks, eating chocolate for breakfast and getting drunk at every opportunity that avails itself. If you work in retail though, this time of year is memorable for other reasons. The run up to Christmas passes by in a nightmarish blur of a discounting, queues, unappeasable customers and an incessant soundtrack of terrible music. From Black Friday and Cyber Monday to the pre-Christmas rush and the Boxing Day Sales, 'tis the season to be tired and miserable, with little festive reward in your £6.70 an hour pay packet and extended opening hours.
I've never worked on a shop floor, but having spent my last two Christmases in a call centre for a major department store's website, I know all this only too well. With more and more of us opting to shop online, a frantic ritual of browsing, spending and praying that a courier then shows up with a parcel in tow has become as much as of Christmas as groaning about decorations being up too early. Black Friday saw British shoppers spend an estimated £810 million online, meaning millions of unique purchases have since wound their way to people's homes. This is the glorious age of consumer convenience: of seven day deliveries, 24 hour customer service and getting whatever you want with just a few clicks and at a fraction of its in-store cost.
This is all surely a pinnacle of human technological achievement – except for when it all goes to shit, that is. Going by the significant part of my life I spent listening to and pretending to care about tedious online delivery issues, I can verify that things do go to shit a lot of the time. Hey, guess what – it's Christmas Eve, it's 8.30PM and no, there isn't anything I can do about the fact that all your presents are sitting in a parcel distribution centre in Milton Keynes because your neighbour didn't sign for your parcel. Would you like a £10 voucher to make up for the look on your child's face as you explain why Santa is late this year?
Listening to strangers getting hysterical about their Christmas party that I've personally ruined while screaming that they'll never order anything again with whatever fucking company I'm meant to be representing is a firm festive tradition as far as I'm concerned. Inevitably, they'll always insist that they always get a much better service with whoever our main rival is, despite the fact that every retailer uses the same five crappy courier companies, much the same call centre contractors and operate identikit warehouses packed full of agency staff on some sprawling industrial estate.
Near enough everyone who shops online has a horror story about missing items, late deliveries, "while you were out" cards or damaged parcels. Sometimes for nostalgic kicks I enter search terms like "Yodel [the name of a delivery company] + bin" into Twitter, such is my morbid interest in people moaning about couriers leaving their delivery in a bin. Complaints like this were pretty much a daily occurrence in the world of e-commerce customer service, and seemingly a lot of people like posting photos of their wheelie bins on the internet so that everyone can share in their outrage.
In fact, it's reached such a terrible state that consumer group Which recently launched a campaign to "stamp out dodgy deliveries", warning that increasing numbers of customers are being put off from ordering things online. It's no doubt a well-intentioned move, but calling on retailers to simply provide a "first class" service seems aimlessly vague. I'm pretty sure they already have rules about parcels being left in bins, but that doesn't stop it occurring often. The problem is that no one likes actually paying anything extra for delivery, meaning that companies operating in tight competition with one another opt for the cheapest courier firms going.
Enter Hermes and Yodel, essentially the Uber of online deliveries, who somehow manage to spin taking on thousands of seasonal temps as "creating jobs" in the run up to Christmas. In many cases, couriers for these companies are technically self-employed, meaning they're expected to supply their own vehicle, aren't entitled to holidays or sick pay. In the past, investigations into Hermes showed that people working for them ended up earning less than minimum wage. Complaints about working conditions persist. The self-employed model is justified with the same kind of language Tory MPs use when they're talking about zero-hours contracts: it's all about "freedom" and flexibility, in case you were wondering.
I hate to think of how many hours I've spent on hold to these two companies, waiting for one of their call centre staff to investigate what's happened to the parcel of a customer I'm dealing with. Sometimes, they'd simply get back to say that a driver isn't contracted with them anymore so they can't speak for any of their parcels, encapsulating exactly how messed up this entire model is. This isn't to say that most Yodel and Hermes drivers aren't hardworking and honest – I hated customers implying that couriers were stealing their parcels more than anything else – but they're still ruthlessly exploited. When in some cases delivery drivers are getting a total incentive of about a quid for each successful delivery (and nothing for a failed attempt), why things can go so badly begins to make more sense.
It's not just deliveries though: the entire logistics chain is predicated on a low paid, casualised workforce. Amazon's "fulfilment centres" have become notorious for their working practices, with stock pickers expected to walk up to 15 miles a day over ten and a half hour shifts, their every move tracked by a computer. But that's just the industry standard in a sector which is employing more and more people each year – at least until replacing everyone with robots and delivery drones becomes cheaper.
With all this in mind, it must be reassuring for customers to know that there's a call centre in a distant part of the country, stacked full of temps who started two weeks earlier, always on hand to answer their calls, reply to tweets and churn out template email responses when things go wrong. So whether you're after the chance to let off some steam by shouting at a supervisor of an outsourced call centre company or just want a straight-up refund for a parcel you are probably telling the truth about not having received, it's all taken care of. But no amount of reading about your "consumer rights" on the Which website is going to change the fundamentals of the online retail model. For big retailers, a certain level of delivery fuck-ups is a price worth paying when it means keeping other costs – like labour – as low as possible. Welcome to the future.
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