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The writer is a consumer journalist and broadcaster
If you spent yesterday in a Black Friday frenzy, buying festive presents over the internet, how confident are you that Father Christmas and his reindeer couriers will deliver the parcels safely? Or will some grinch have stolen the Lego set and Barbie doll before they make it past your front door?
The post-Covid world has created all sorts of hybrid phenomena that bridge the digital and physical realms: working, wine tasting, book clubs and now, it would seem, burglary. Reports last week suggested that so-called porch piracy in the UK had jumped 500 per cent in the past four years.
Porch piracy is the term given for the disappointing circumstance of ordering something online only to discover that some lowlife has nabbed it from your doorstep. According to Freedom of Information requests sent to police forces across the UK, one in 10 households reported the loss of a package last year. The requests were sent by a technology company called Quadient, which provides parcel lockers, so it has skin in the game. But it estimates there were 16,421 reports of parcel theft in the year to August 2023, up from 2,707 for the same period four years ago.
Britain seems to be in the grip of a neighbourhood crime wave, a 21st century equivalent of the pickpocketing that once blighted Victorian cities. “Oh, yes. It’s very common now,” says my Amazon driver when I quiz him about doorstep theft as he delivers (yet another) parcel. “It’s crazy. Especially in apartment buildings.” Amazon, of course, owns the smart doorbell, Ring, which may be an immensely clever vertically integrated business model: offer unlimited deliveries for £95 a year through Amazon Prime; then sell a £49.99 doorbell that will send you alerts when anyone approaches your front door to steal one of those deliveries. How’s that for upselling?
In a survey of delivery companies by the consumer charity Citizens Advice published last week, Amazon was joint top for reliability — though with a pretty tepid score of 2.75 out of 5. Morgan Wild, head of policy at the charity, said Ofcom, the postal regulator, needs to take the problem more seriously and fine the worst offenders. “They need to proactively monitor companies and take enforcement action against those who persistently let consumers be victims of crime on their own doorstep.”
This boom in doorstep delinquency is not a UK-specific problem. Eight states in the US have recently passed laws increasing the penalties for package theft from a misdemeanour to a felony. One survey estimates that 210mn packages were stolen across America in 2021.
But few countries have embraced online shopping with as much gusto as the UK, with millions getting into the habit during pandemic lockdowns. Pitney Bowes, a postage technology firm, estimates that 76 parcels per person were shipped in the UK in 2022, way more than any of its European neighbours. Only the Chinese can beat that record, with 78 parcels per person. Perhaps there are just more cardboard boxes lying around the doorsteps of Britain and thus more temptation for opportunistic thieves, especially since many workplaces ban staff from using the company post room as a dumping ground for their shopping.
Kien Tan, senior retail adviser at PwC, is not convinced that the number of thefts per delivery has shot up, however. “Yes, the volume of online shopping has gone through the roof, but in general delivery has become less of an issue. You get far fewer stories of people’s parcels being thrown over fences.”
Courier companies — and retailers — are certainly making a far greater effort to ensure packages end up in the right hands. Hence the humiliation of many drivers snapping pictures of you in your dressing gown as you groggily accept delivery of some printer ink before you’ve even had breakfast. Some retailers are removing the option of “leaving in a safe place” for high-value parcels or when the address is in a crime hotspot.
Whether porch piracy really has exploded, it is true that shoplifting as a whole has substantially risen, with leading retailers recently calling on the UK home secretary for help. The cost of living crisis has increased the market for stolen goods. There are more people feeling the pinch and willing to buy something “fallen off the back of the lorry” down the pub or at a car boot sale.
Stopping such theft will probably require another hybrid solution: namely click and collect, a retail trend that has taken off in the past few years. Buy online, then travel to your local branch for the parcel. Curiously, according to PwC data, it is 18- to 34-year-olds who most readily embrace the inconvenience of this pick-n-mix shopping style, partly to avoid delivery fees, partly because they are most likely to live in an apartment block with no safe delivery spot. And at least it’s a guarantee of ensuring you get your parcel before someone else does.