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What Really Happens When a Package Is Lost?


Millions of packages are delivered across town and across the world every day. In almost every case, packages get to where they’re going with no problems. The US Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, and other major parcel delivery services pride themselves on accuracy and timeliness. But sometimes packages do go missing. From the consumer’s point of view, it seems that these packages have entered some kind of black hole. But what really happens when a package is lost?

How It’s Supposed to Work

To understand why a package might go missing, let’s start by addressing (no pun intended) what happens when a package gets where it’s going with no problems at all. For this section, we will use the example of UPS. However, FedEx has a similar system.

How UPS Works

When you hand a package to UPS, it has a label with a barcode on it. If you are scheduling a pickup, you will have to enter information about the size and weight of your package into a computer, as well as its destination and a few other details. You can then print a label that has some information printed so that humans can read it (such as the destination address).  All of the information provided, including destination and the other details, are encoded into a barcode on the lable that is readable by computers. If you drop off your package at a UPS store, the process is similar, though the UPS store employee may help with the packing and data entry.

Once the package is picked up, it travels by truck to a regional sorting facility. There, UPS workers will scan each package and sort them into groups depending on their destination. If the destination is less than 200 miles away, the package will travel by truck. If it is more than 200 miles away, the journey will be by air.

UPS and The Big Sort

Packages that will journey by air are delivered (by air or by truck) to Louisville, Kentucky, home of UPS Worldport, a huge package sorting megaplex. (FedEx has a similar hub in Memphis, Tennessee.) Worldport is huge. Its internal space could hold more than eight football fields. Its perimeter is more than 5 miles.

Cargo is unloaded from the planes and sorted into categories of “smalls” (mostly envelopes), regular 6 sided boxes, and “irregs” (everything else). Packages in each of these categories are placed on a separate conveyor belt with the label side up, so it can be scanned by computers. The packages then go into the maze of conveyor belts that is Worldport. For about 15 minutes, each package travels through Worldport. Along the way, computers scan the barcode and direct its path so that it eventually ends up in a large canvas bag or container with other packages going to a similar area.

From there, the packages destined for a similar area are loaded into giant shipping containers that are domed to fit the inside of an aircraft’s hull. The aircraft takes the packages to a regional airport hub. The packages are scanned again, and packages going to a similar area are sent by truck to a regional sorting facility. From there, UPS employees scan each package with a small handheld computer and place it on a specific truck. The scanner even tells them where in the truck to place it, so that the driver can more easily locate the package when it reaches its destination.

Trucks are given computer generated routes created to balance delivery time and fuel efficiency. UPS routes famously eliminate as many left turns as possible, even if it means making the route longer. This reduces the chances of an accident and eliminates time and gas wasted while waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic. Once a package reaches its destination, the UPS driver retrieves it from the truck and delivers it, scanning it one last time and getting a signature when necessary.

The Magic of the Label

The whole sorting and delivery process is made possible by the shipping label. Specifically, the barcode that encodes the information so that is can be quickly read and interpreted by a computer is the key to accurate delivery. This is what allows UPS and other shippers to offer parcel tracking. Each package has a tracking number embedded into its barcode. At each location a package is scanned, time and location are uploaded into the cloud. When you enter a tracking number, you are requesting the scanning information associated with that package, which can tell you the last place it was scanned and when. The barcode is read by computers and scanners throughout the package’s journey, telling the humans and machines who encounter it along the way exactly where to send it.

In this interesting case, a woman placed a label for FedEx on her package, but dropped it off at a UPS store. The way that information is encoded into a barcode can be specific to a courier, so this may have made it difficult for UPS to scan and forward her package. The package disappeared and could not be found by UPS or FedEx. However, with help from TrustDALE, her package was delivered, nearly 50 days after it was first dropped off at the UPS store. Check out her story here:

The Label Breakdown

The label plays a major role in directing a package, but that’s also where the breakdown can occur. Because the package’s trip is guided by its barcode, if the barcode is obscured it can send the whole process to a screeching halt. The barcode could become unreadable for any number of reasons. If the shipping label becomes damaged, it could make it impossible for computers to scan the barcode. The worst case is if the label comes off of the package completely, leaving it with no information at all. It is also possible, though unlikely, that a package was placed with the barcode in the wrong direction at Worldport, though this rarely happens and is easily remedied.

What Happens When You Can’t Read the Label

What happens when a barcode becomes unreadable depends on how badly the shipping label is damaged. Any package that cannot be scanned will stop its progress at whatever facility has it at the time it becomes unreadable. From there it will be placed in a storage space for unreadable packages. The best case is if there is a separate, readable return address. In this case, that package can be returned to the sender or the sender can be contacted to provide more information.

If the package has no readable label, it goes into the pile of lost packages. If a claim is made, the package has to be located. The sender or receiver (whoever makes the claim) will provide the size and weight of the package. From there, employees have to sort through the lost packages pile and find the package based on size and weight. This can be a slow process, sorting through thousands of packages. The process usually takes minimum of 7 days. If the package cannot be located after 10 days it is officially deemed lost.

What Happens to Parcels That Are Never Claimed

Parcels that have no discernable address and are not claimed don’t just sit in a pile forever. After a certain period of time, they are collected and removed from storage. This can take a number of forms. Sometimes, the items in the packages are auctioned off. In other cases, items may be dispersed among employees. There has been some controversy over this method, such as when very valuable items go up for auction.

What to Do When You Think Your Parcel is Lost

The first thing to do is to file a claim as soon as possible. This gives the courier the maximum amount of time to find your lost item and makes it easier to find, since the item hasn’t gone far. Another option is to purchase insurance on your package. If you are shipping a high value item, this is a very good way to protect yourself against a potential loss. Of course, millions of packages are shipped all around the world every day, and most reach their destinations safely and on time. Lost packages may be a frustration, but they are a very rare exception to the norm.