Friday, April 12, 2013

You Want It WHEN?

We all know the feeling. We've packed everything for the trip, including the right number of socks and underwear, snacks, water bottles, reading material, chargers for the phone and tablet and computer. We even put out the cat and made sure the stove was off, the porch light on, and the neighbor knows to bring in the mail. Satisfied that all is ready, we gas up the car and hit the road. Then about a hundred miles later while merrily singing along with the radio, the moment of realization strikes, the one thing we forgot.

So, recently I found myself several hundred miles from home without two medications that I'm supposed to take every night. What to do? Call the doctor for a temporary prescription? Talk the drug store into selling me enough for a few days? What if instead it were possible to simply cause those two bottles parked on the shelf at home to transport themselves to my current location?

And of course, for some years now, that is exactly what is possible -- and in this case what was the easiest thing to do. All I needed was someone who could get into my house (thank you, you know who you are) and take them to the nearest Fedex shipping point, only a mile away. The following morning while sitting placidly in a meeting room in the rural boondocks I looked out the window to see the Fedex truck pass by, just for me.

Commonplace, I know. But consider that those precious objects had flown from Miami to Orlando -- with a change of planes in Nashville, Tennessee! -- while I slept and ate my breakfast, then managed to hop on the right truck to get to me before lunch. And the fee for this was less than two hours wages. What a wonderful world.

The Post Office used to be known for its intrepid reliability, but for the past dozens of years the crown has surely passed to Federal Express and its imitators -- UPS, DHL, Airborne, et al. A niche market initially patronized by attorneys impatient for documents has grown into a household utility, moving everything from freight down to letters (or pills) that "absolutely, positively, have to get there overnight." In some locations, and for a premium, you can even get it delivered the same day. The project that began as an MBA masters thesis about efficient distribution networks has conquered the world.

Conquered is not too strong a word. Along with ubiquitous low cost transportation and cheap electronic communications, the existence of such revolutionary courier service was a hallmark of the free market countries who faced off against the centrally managed systems of their rivals in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In fact, I remember reading about an experiment that was conducted not long after the USSR collapsed and Western companies were beginning to explore the novel possibility of doing business there.

The test was performed simultaneously in the USA and Russia. In America identical packages were sent by 3 rival services coast to coast to the same address. All three arrived the following morning within 30 minutes of each other. In Russia they tried to send a package from Moscow to the newly renamed St. Petersburg (nee Leningrad). I can't recall how long it took, but it was a l-o-o-n-g time, and its arrival was anything but certain. We're talking weeks, by which time whatever the package contained was no longer urgent.

Forget military applications; how could you even run a country that way in the modern world? The answer is, you couldn't, not successfully, and package delivery was only one more sign of the many failings of a system that was decaying and collapsing of its own weight. The experimenters described the act of taking something to be shipped to a government office during one of its few open hours, standing in long lines, perhaps to be told that the package was not wrapped properly and sent home to find some string. Here you don't even have to wrap it, they will wrap it for you and do a better job of it than you might yourself.

Did you know Fedex can even help you ship backwards in time? What? OK, it's only a rare example, but here's how it works. You know they have a cutoff time each day. It might be 6 pm if they're picking up, or 8 pm if you're taking it to one of their main shipping offices. But a company I used to work for was part of a nationwide chain. When one of our East coast customers needed to overnight some prints after hours, we sent a digital copy to another location in California where they had plenty of time to produce the prints and get them to Fedex before the cutoff there -- which of course was 3 hours later than in the East. One wonders what might be possible in modern day Russia, which spans 9 time zones.

So let's hear it for our overnight shippers, expediters of the modern age, who have made the likes of Amazon possible, and then enabled us all to provide the same service from every mom and pop shop in the land. It may not be sexy, it may not be high tech, but it gets there, absolutely, positively. And hey, I've got my pills.

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