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Business trends

Japan's couriers hope early deliveries can cut unneeded trips

Industry struggles to handle soaring demand amid labor shortage

Lohaco allows customers to ask for deliveries as early as 6 a.m.

TOKYO -- More courier services in Japan are making early-morning deliveries as they try to reduce the number of repeat trips they make to get packages to customers.

At 7:45 a.m., a driver pulls up to a house in the central city of Nagoya. He hands over a parcel from Amazon to a woman dressed in a business suit at the door and heads off for his next delivery. That day he manages to drop off four parcels by 8 a.m.

The driver begins making the rounds as early as 7 a.m. "I'm told it's OK to ring the doorbell after 7:30 a.m.," he says. "Many customers seem confused by morning deliveries at first, but they seem to accept it after the second visit."

In November 2018, the Japanese unit of Amazon.com launched "Amazon Flex," which uses contract drivers to make deliveries in Tokyo and parts of neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture. The service is also available in the northern cities of Sendai and Sapporo.

Office supplies vendor Askul's online shopping joint venture, Lohaco, offers the Happy On Time delivery service in some areas. Customers can specify delivery times hourly, starting at 6 a.m. Askul's courier is the only one that lets customers specify delivery times in the early morning. Competitor Sagawa Express is also considering launching an early-morning service.

In Japan, specified delivery times became the norm since Yamato Transport, the industry leader, began offering them in 1998. But there has been a tacit agreement in the industry that deliveries should not be made before 9 a.m. Now there is a rethink going on as couriers struggle to handle surging demand and reduce the number of trips where no one is home to receive their packages.

According to data from the transport ministry, about 4.3 billion parcels were delivered in Japan in fiscal 2018, up 30% over the previous decade, due to the growth of online shopping.

Undelivered packages are a headache for couriers. Nationally, as of last October, 15% of parcels handled by the top three delivery companies -- Yamato Transport, Sagawa Express and Japan Post -- had to be redelivered because the recipients were out. In urban areas the figure was 16.6%.

The ministry estimates that the labor of 90,000 workers is wasted annually due to packages that failed to make it into recipients' hands on the first try, and that eliminating labor shortages in the logistics sector will be difficult without cutting the number of missed deliveries.

"Customers are most likely to be at home in the morning. The more we can make deliveries by 10 a.m., the more productive we will be," said Yukimasa Takizawa, executive officer at Japanese online retailer Rakuten.

But early-morning deliveries are bound to draw complaints from people who would rather sleep in. Although Rakuten allows delivery requests starting 7 a.m. in some areas, it makes sure not to make deliveries before 8 a.m. on weekends and holidays.

Tokyo-based startup Last One Mile Solution is considering a tie-up with a courier for an early-morning delivery service using newspaper distribution centers around the country, with parcels left at the door along with the morning paper. People waiting for their packages may have to get used to the idea of being roused from their beds more often.

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