What a smashing service

Lockdown has resulted in a boom in local and national deliveries for wine merchants, and now more than ever indies are relying on couriers to help them get orders to customers on time and in perfect condition. But the familiar problems with lost consignments and broken bottles have not gone away.

Report by Graham Holter

Who’s got a good story about couriers? All right, most wine merchants can tell a few juicy ones. But Daniel Grigg’s takes some beating.

Over the course of seven orders, from the end of March until the beginning of May, FedEx managed to lose or destroy £1,057 worth of wine that Museum Wines, based in Dorset, had attempted to send to its customers:

Order one: six bottles delivered, 12 vanished.

Order two: six bottles ordered, all vanished.

Order three: 12 bottles ordered, all smashed and disposed of.

Order four: 12 bottles ordered, all vanished.

Order five: 12 bottles ordered, all vanished.

Order six: four bottles ordered, all vanished.

Order seven: 12 bottles delivered, 12 bottles smashed and disposed of.

FedEx has not responded to our request for a comment, but Grigg’s legal adviser, now on the case, hopes to have more luck.

“Given how busy we were, the last thing we needed was trying to figure out where people’s orders had gone,” says Grigg. “And there’s no incentive for FedEx to do anything about it.

“Their terms of carriage state that breakages of fragile goods are not covered for claims. I understand and accept this.

“They are now trying to extend this to lost goods of which, all of sudden, there are lots. Boxes of 12 bottles getting to the sortation hub never to be seen again. They state we cannot claim due to the ’nature of the goods’.

Daniel Grigg

“There have been three instances of goods damaged in transit being ‘disposed of’ without informing us or seeking consent to do so. This isn’t a shipment of one bottle being broken – this is them claiming all 12 were smashed then disposed of on three occasions.

“Most recently apparently two boxes, both containing 12 bottles, being sent to one address were smashed and disposed of.

“I have seen boxes fall or be dropped from a height of several feet and you might lose three or four at the most, not all 12. Physics alone suggests the bottles that make contact with the ground will cushion the others.

“What was sent via FedEx was also packed in two layers of reinforced cardboard, rather than original packaging, so it would take some serious effort or negligence to smash all of them.

“Even senior customer service agents have admitted to me that they find it unlikely and are not sure why the entire shipment was disposed of.

“My argument is it is our property, not theirs, and they have no right to dispose of it without consulting us or providing photographic evidence of the damage – neither of which they have done or are able to do.

“They also seem unable to confirm what the policy in their terms of carriage states regarding goods damaged in transit.”

Independent merchants have been relying on couriers more than ever before thanks to lockdown. If it was an opportunity to put right some of the problems that have long existed with wine deliveries, it’s one that seems to have been missed, judging by many of the comments that appeared on The Wine Merchant’s Twitter feed earlier this month.

In fairness, some merchants praise the attentive service they have been receiving from couriers, though others have reports of breakages and missing wines. Some contributors to the thread believe there is a problem with theft in some areas.

Often – but not always – problems can be avoided with the right choice of packaging.

Jean-Claude Schmitt of The French Wine People in Matlock is trying to move away from plastic in his transit packaging, but is finding it’s the best insurance against breakages.
“The ultimate responsibility lies with courier companies – it’s on them to change the culture,” he says.

“We have to use these packaging materials otherwise wine will be smashed. The drivers are tracked – and reprimanded if stationary too long. I have witnessed parcels thrown from the back of the van to the front, when making room for the parcels collected from us.”

Liberty Wines boss David Gleave says that the problems with couriers have been the same for the past 25 years.

“Wine via courier is a lottery,” he says. “APC are probably the best of a bad lot. They are a sort of collection of different depots and if you’ve got a well-run depot it works well. If you’ve got a poorly run depot then they are as bad as anyone else.”

WBC boss Andrew Wilson shares those concerns. But he adds: “I think the couriers are waking up to the fact that the wine delivery market is growing exponentially, and they want to be more of a part of it.

“Up until now, it has been very hard to find out what a courier’s policy is on carrying drinks. In the small print most of them say they do not – but they do, and in ever increasing volume.

“None of them have a clear policy or advice on what to pack your bottles in to survive their network. As far as I am aware, none of them will insure drinks being sent through their network.

“We have carried out extensive testing with many of the couriers and it is very hit-and-miss on breakages.”

The Wine Merchant contacted the Institute of Couriers for comment. We asked for its assessment of the scale of the problem with wine breakages, and advice on what steps merchants should take to minimise damage.

We also enquired what measures couriers themselves are putting in place.

We asked what evidence IOC members are expected to provide when a breakage occurs, and why some sortation hubs seem more problematic than others. Finally, we asked if the organisation would be prepared to attend an industry forum in which couriers and merchants can air concerns and suggestions.

We did not receive direct answers to any of these questions. Chairman Carl Lomas said: “The IOC will offer assistance to follow up if a merchant does not get response to a consignment note request for their goods.

“With record numbers of first-time delivery success during Covid, the sector data is at odds with The Wine Merchant magazine claims for failed delivery. The first step is to collect the wine merchants’ data to understand the issues for both merchants and couriers.

“The second step, a code of values for robust packaging for wine, would be a worthy review, but we need to understand the numbers first across a broad spectrum of couriers.”