Tuesday, 18 May 2010

How to survive being useless

I’m currently in the process of having some things I bought online delivered.  I say “in the process of” because the things in question have been given to the courier who are currently in the process of trying to deliver them to my house.

It always intrigued me how couriers could survive in what must be a very competitive market when they give very bad service to the people they are delivering to.  But the answer is really quite obvious.

Couriers aren’t paid by the people who receive the items, they are paid by the people sending them.  In the particular case I’m thinking about the couriers (the courier in case you care) only deliver on behalf of business with accounts.  So how does that protect them from the normal effects of being crap at what they do?

Well, let’s look at my particular case.  I bought something online.  I bought it online because it was a good price, and the delivery charge looked reasonable.  It didn’t occur to me to look at which delivery service they were using – and even if I had decided to look, I would only have been given a company name which would’ve then involved more online research to find the services offered by that delivery company.  So, as most online buyers do, I simply bought my items and paid and presumed that the company I was buying from would arrange delivery.

As is often the case with this courier things went wrong with both the delivery and the courier’s follow-up to my complaint.  Initially, I was shocked, and was ready to fire off letters and emails to the courier to vent my frustration but then I realised there’s little point, as the courier don’t actually care if I’m happy or not.

If I’m unhappy, I complain to the courier, but not being a customer of theirs I am not in a position to actually remove any business from them or seek any form of compensation.  The courier company may receive the complaints, but their contract is with the seller, and in order for the seller to complain to the courier it would take me to complain to the seller, and the seller to pass that complaint onto the courier.  This route is so round-about that only a very small amount of feedback will ever make it through.

So despite the courier being terrible at “delivering things” – which is the one and only thing they do – they are vaccinated if not entirely immune to the usual effects of providing bad service.

In order for my bad experience to have an effect on the courier’s business, the seller I use would have to receive a large number of complaints and would have to have the time to collect the information and pass it onto the courier.  The default reaction of anyone waiting for a parcel is to contact the courier direct, and I guess only a small proportion of those who do so will also contact the original vendor.

With my experience of the past few days, I’ve made a mental note not to order from any company which use this particular courier as the delivery courier.  I do so mostly for my own sanity rather than because I think it’ll make any difference.  A quick Google for this courier will show you that I’m not the only one with problems but given that it seems the courier have never been any good at delivering things and they are still around and thriving as a business it seems as though in some industries it is perfectly possible to have just one function as a company, perform that function very badly indeed and yet still survive as a successful company.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

My favourite mistakes

I collect coins and banknotes.  Yes, I am aware that makes me “a bit sad” but I like it.  One thing I find fascinating are the mistakes.  The errors.  The coins and banknotes we were never meant to get our grubby little public hands on.

Mistakes in bank note printing are quite common.  The paper flies through the machines at an incredible rate, and folds and other problems with the paper are quite common.  Notes are often miscut, meaning large blank paper flaps remain on the side, for instance. 

Below is a photo of a UK fiver showing a slightly rarer error.  Both the design from the front of the note and the design from the back of the note have been printed on the same side.  The most likely cause of this is that one sheet of banknotes fell on top of another before the ink was fully dry.


Errors in coins are rarer.  Coins are generally pressed one at a time from blank pieces of metal of the right size.  The lack of flexible paper and post-print cutting makes mistakes rarer than with banknotes – but that doesn’t mean that don’t happen.

Let’s start with a well-known example.  In 2008, the design of UK coins changed.  As part of the change, the date on the 20p coin was moved from one side of the coin to the other.  Some coins were produced with both front and back without a date.  Of course, these coins were never meant to end up in circulation but it seems that a rather large number of them did.  It’s perfectly possible to find one of the coins in your change.  Don’t get too excited though, talk of them being worth “thousands of pounds” is rubbish – a shiny, unscratched example will probably get you around £70 at the most.

But the 20p isn’t the only time a mistake has been made at the mint.  And sometimes the errors have nothing to do with the wrong dies being used.

Coins are made from blank pieces of metal, the right size for the coin, but without the design on.  These fly into a machine which stamps the familiar design onto the coins.  But this process doesn’t always go according to plan.  The quality control at the mint is very good, and most of the time, any coins which aren’t perfect are found and destroyed before reaching circulation, but that’s not always the case.


The picture above shows a 3d from 1956.  It seems that another piece of metal got in the way during the pressing process, and so there’s a circular chunk missing from one side of the coin. 

But sometimes something even rarer can happen. Look at this 2p from 1979.


Do not adjust your sets.  There’s nothing wrong with the colour in that picture.  The 2p piece you’re looking at is actually silver.  It’s made of cupro-nickel rather than the usual bronze.  From the 1990s onward, 1p and 2p coins were minted in steel and then plated in copper, but back in 1979 they were made (or supposed to be made) from solid bronze.   So how did that happen?

Well the Royal Mint here in the UK doesn’t just make coins for the UK; they make coins for many countries throughout the world under contract.  The best guess here is that a blank normally used for a non-UK coin the same size as a 2p – but made from cupro-nickel accidentally found its way into the hopper of blanks destined for 2p pieces.  The resulting error didn’t get picked up by the Royal Mint, and the shiny silver 2p made it out into the wild.

So don’t think of collecting coins as simply memorising the designs of the UK pound coin for every year since 1983 or trying to get a complete set of sixpences.  Think of the more interesting items which give an insight into how money is made and why you should always check your change – you never know what you may find!

(All pictures are of items from my private collection – don’t reuse without permission – thanks! D.)

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Things you overhear…

I was waiting at Euston station for a train yesterday. The train was delayed. I would say “as is typical” but in fairness to Virgin Trains, the service from London to Chester is usually pretty reliable.

Anyway – waiting for the delayed train, I was standing with the rest of the world staring at the departure board trying to guess which of the incoming trains shown on the arrivals board would become our outgoing train so I work out which platform I should be edging towards. Having a pre-booked seat reservation didn’t stop me from thinking that getting on the train sooner rather than later would somehow speed up my journey.

Two guys were standing next to me. From the way they were interacting, I’d say they were probably workmates who both happened to be getting trains from Euston around the same time, so had travelled there together. They were talking very loudly, and so even had I wanted to, avoiding hearing their conversation would’ve been somewhat impossible.

The taller and younger of the guys was talking about his girlfriend. Apparently she had decided that she needed to lose weight, and he started by saying how he’d told her that she looked fine the way she was, and that she didn’t need to lose weight. That made me warm to him.

He did, however, follow up that modern sentiment with … “cos thin birds have small tits and I told her that I like her tits really big”.

Men, eh?