Why did my gift get stuck 10 miles from my home?
January 11, 2015 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Something strange happened to me at Christmas and I'm curious if the green can shed more light onto it. I bought something online from a trusted retailer that I've bought from frequently. This was my third purchase this fall to the same address. It was due to be delivered on the 23rd via a combination of UPS and USPS but never arrived. When I followed up a week or so later, the trusted retailer described it as "irretrievably lost" and overnighted replacement items.

The was shipped to me via UPS. It arrived at the UPS hub 10 miles from my home on the 21st of December. On the 22nd on December, the slated delivery was by COB 12/23. The morning of the 23rd, the tracking had been updated to COB 12/24.

I called UPS 12/24 and asked if I could pick it up at the hub and was told that only the shipper could permit that. I called the retailer and they called UPS while I was on hold and UPS told them that the package was being transferred to USPS for last-mile delivery and could not be held for pickup. The UPS tracking page was updated on the afternoon of 12/24 to say "undeliverable as addressed". I called UPS and they said that update came from USPS. I asked our mail carrier (who is awesome) and he had no idea what it was about. The location still showed the package as being 10 miles from our house.

A week later, I called the retailer, and they said the box was "irretrievably lost" and overnighted me replacement items, which arrived without issue.

I'm curious if anyone has any idea what happened here? First, with the changes in the delivery status (first the 23rd, then the 24th, then undeliverable) with no explanation. Also, I know that the post office occasionally loses packages, but why did they update the tracking with "undeliverable as addressed" when they actually lost it? And what happens to this box? When it turns up behind the bin or stuck to the bottom of a tray, will it go back to the sender? Back to UPS? Be delivered to me?

And, finally - is there a way as a customer to prevent last-mile delivery being subcontracted out? I selected UPS shipping from the trusted retailer (I also had the option to select FedEx and USPS) and though USPS usually does a very good job, other last-mile deliverers are (LaserShip, OnTrak, etc.) much more questionable and have equally questionable labor practices. I'd be willing to pay more to know that when I select UPS, my box will be delivered by UPS.

Thanks for indulging my curiosity!
posted by arnicae to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is getting popular and it's making me batshit. I order stuff, it gets shipped UPS, then it gets handed off to USPS where tracking goes completely haywire. Things that should take X amount to time to get to me now take X+5 days. Double plus ungood.

What's happening is that FedEx/UPS/Pony Express deposits all deliveries for Atlanta at one hub post office. THEN USPS does whatever stuff THEY do to get intra-city mail to the right home. There are so many points of failure at that time that it's just...overwhelming. The package can get dropped off at the wrong USPS location, So Portland, ME instead of Portland OR. The package makes it okay from the hub USPS office but bounces off the truck on the way to YOUR post office. It gets to your post office, but doesn't make it on the delivery truck. It gets on the truck but falls off before it's delivered.

I used to design data networks and blending two networks is ALWAYS a disaster, it might work fine, but when it doesn't, tracking down where the failure is can be a nightmare! Lots of finger pointing.

The only way around it is to pay for expedited shipping so that it goes door-to-door with one carrier.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:36 PM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

The services that cause parcels to get handed off to USPS for last mile delivery are distinct shipping methods. UPS calls theirs "Surepost" and FedEx calls theirs "SmartPost." Packages shipped via Ground, 2-Day, etc. should not ever get handed off to USPS as far as I know. If the merchant is just selling you "UPS" shipping and then behind the scenes using UPS Surepost, I think that's on them. But if you have the option of picking UPS Ground, 3 Day Select, or something along those lines, that should ensure that UPS will actually deliver it.
posted by primethyme at 4:44 PM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

What RB said. It's call~get this~ "smart post".. It has caused more trouble than some of the packages are worth sending for at all.'
I've been sent emails by UPS saying my stuff was 'undeliverable',' no one was home',
'they couldn't find my house', etc.. all wrong, I was there every time. AND my dogs are trained to bark until I come to the door due to hearing loss so no UPS was there.
The package(s) would be sitting at the post office the same day!
I chalked it up to really bad communication, temporary help, or "it's good enough for government work".
posted by donaken at 4:45 PM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

12/23 to 12/24 and then the shift to USPS for "last mile" delivery implies to me that UPS was swamped with holiday volume.

As to why USPS decided the address was undeliverable, who the hell knows. Could be bureaucratic error somewhere, could be a damaged package (possibly obscuring the address?), or really anything.

Ruthless Bunny's suggestion of ending up at the wrong branch post office sounds particularly reasonable to me. Not so much Maine to Oregon (if it started 10 miles from your home), but maybe UPS wasn't sure which side of some arbitrary local jurisdiction your zip code comes under, or maybe your package ended up on the wrong truck, and suddenly it's Christmas and your package is sitting at a closed post office two towns over. After Christmas, the UPS/USPS "last mile" deal was off, rendering it much more complicated to get to you than if it had simply sat in the UPS facility the whole time.
posted by Sara C. at 4:47 PM on January 11, 2015

I don't know the answers to your questions, but something similar happened to me last year. I ordered two identical printers from Amazon, at the same time. They were shipped the same day by UPS. One printer arrived quickly and without incident. The tracking number for the second printer showed it as being located in a neighboring city, at some kind of UPS distribution center. There it stayed for the next week. Eventually, after I contacted Amazon, they sent me a new printer at no extra charge. I never found out what happened to the original one.

One other UPS story: I ordered a book for home delivery. After some time had gone by with no book in sight, I checked the UPS tracking number: It said that the package was successfully delivered and left at my back door. It was not. I contacted Amazon, and they sent me another book, at no extra charge. A few days later, both books arrived at the same time.
posted by akk2014 at 4:50 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sometimes weird stuff just happens and there's not necessarily anything that can be done about it.

I recently had a USPS package delivered to me a year after it had been mailed. The shipper had long ago refunded my money and I had to send them a check to pay them back for the refund.
posted by Jahaza at 5:41 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd chalk it up to a combination of the horrible and increasingly popular combo "last mile" delivery systems and holiday craziness.
posted by radioamy at 6:00 PM on January 11, 2015

arnicae: "is there a way as a customer to prevent last-mile delivery being subcontracted out?"

After having done a bit of work on back-end systems for shippers, the only answer I can see is no. Parcel delivery rates are being squeezed everywhere, especially since virtually every merchant now offers "free shipping" as a selling point. There's at least one package management system that now simply selects the cheapest delivery method based on the specified time for delivery ("whenever," 3-day, 2-day, next-day, heat-death-of-universe) and not even the seller really knows which carrier will be used until the label prints.

Giving that level of choice to a customer, especially on a web site with more than a modest volume of traffic, would wind up causing all manner of customer service hassles ("I paid for 3-day and it didn't arrive within 72 exact hours!!!" - Quote from a real ticket) so it's unlikely to happen except through very small sellers.
posted by fireoyster at 7:32 PM on January 11, 2015

And, finally - is there a way as a customer to prevent last-mile delivery being subcontracted out?
A few years ago, regarding negative experiences with OnTrac from Amazon, I heard it pointed out that if one has things delivered to a P.O. Box, the company is forced to ship via USPS since PO boxes can't receive other kinds of deliveries. Of course, that's not necessarily any easier or more reliable.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:36 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

My experience with USPS is that the destination address has to be utterly illegible in order to make it undeliverable. Given that the reason was "undeliverable as addressed" I would guess that at some point in the UPS shipping, the address was either covered up by a routing label, or otherwise defaced in a way that couldn't be read.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:06 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

What needs more cowbell said is true, and I don't think anything else can be done.

I did customer service for one of this trusted retailers for a few months (one that you all probably bought from at some point, but not the one on the OP).

A lot of things may have happened, sometimes they damage packages or labels, so they can't read the address. Maybe another parcel got damaged and the contents spilled over yours. My bet is that something spilled over the label making the address unreadable, but the tracking number was intact. Normally they would call the retailer to get the address from them, but during Christmas season it would be a pain to reach customer service, so they just marked it as undeliverable. By marking it add undeliverable as shipped they also put the blame on the shipper, so it doesn't count against the metrics on the service level agreement they have with the retailer.

As for "irretrievably lost", that sounds like the rep just made up an explanation when there wasn't one, to give you closure over the first package and move on to send you a replacement, since it was the fastest and easiest way of satisfying you.

Someone also mentioned packages being marked as delivered when they weren't. I think sometimes, when scanning parcels tracking bar codes at a location they can set the scanner gun to the wrong seeing. But what can also happen is that some drivers prefer to scan everything in the morning so that it seems they delivered everything on time and have a flawless performance, or they may be late on their route, mark the package as delivered, but go home and leave it for the following day.
posted by Promethea at 6:30 AM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Years ago I sent a flat package of Christmas presents USPS to a town address in rural Maine. Weeks after they hadn't arrived, the local post office investigated, and the mailman finally found them under the seat of his car...
posted by mmiddle at 8:47 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

The post office is weird. Last winter, the person delivering packages that day must not have felt up to it, because two packages got lost. It was a big hassle to get the second one re-sent, since it had come from a small bookstore. I never found out what happened to either of those.

Later that summer, I'd pre-ordered a book. A week after the book was supposed to have been received, the seller declared the order lost and sent me another copy of the book. Original order showed up hours before the replacement order.
posted by PearlRose at 9:37 AM on January 12, 2015

this happened to me once. finally found out that my package was delivered to the wrong building. so it might just be human error on the part of the mail carrier.
posted by sabh at 11:55 AM on January 12, 2015

Everyone has different experiences but I have rarely had problems with USPS, only FedEx or UPS. Whenever I am making a shipment and can choose USPS, I do.

If USPS is being used at the end of the delivery anyway, may as well use them the whole time.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:04 PM on January 12, 2015

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