parcels

This is a balikbayan box or “repatriate box,” a container of goodies that a Filipino living oversees sends to relatives living in the Philippines. When I was younger, my parents shipped them to family in the Philippines, and they were essentially America in a box – toys, designer clothing, anything that would be tough to find in that country. The box  conforms to airline baggage restrictions, and over the years I watched them gift Tickle Me Elmo, Beanie Babies, Gap sweaters, Rice-A-Roni, and lots of other pieces of their adopted country. Getting a balikbayan box was like the Christmas morning version of a remittance.

That is eventually the business Jeremy Hollander would like to enter. He’s created Parcelio, a website that turns your Facebook friends into your own personal shipping service: if they are traveling to a different country, they can take your package with them. The service launched out of UC Berkeley this week to coincide with the beginning of the semester, though the website has been live since the summer.

Parcelio runs on the Good Samaritan system. If you’re flying abroad soon you can choose to join the database as a parcel carrier simply by forwarding your flight confirmation email to Parcelio. For now the logistics of shipping a big balikbayan style box are too complicated, so the company has started smaller, with typical parcels consisting of books or clothes – things small enough to fit in a traveler’s suitcase.

So, let’s say you want to ship a package to a friend in Spain. You tell the service what’s in the parcel, its origin and destination, and by what window of time you want it there. The algorithm goes whiz-pop and crawls the database to see what Facebook friends of yours might be traveling to Spain then. You confirm the match, and Parcelio asks that friend if she would take the parcel. If she says yes then you drop of the parcel with her. After she arrives in Spain, she meets up with your friend in Spain to hand off the package.

Hollander got the idea for the service after repeatedly shipping goods to his mother-in-law in Colombia and wanted to find a cheaper way. For now, his target demographic is expats, foreign students, and those who are studying abroad. Since the service in only launched at UC Berkeley for now, it increases the likelihood that your Facebook friends are using the service.

The bootstrapped company provides a free service for now but will eventually monetize using an Airbnb-type model. Instead of just dealing with friends, or friends of friends, the platform will open to the general public. In those cases, the carrier would charge a fee — about half the price of shipping through FedEx. Hollander argues it’s a good way for a traveler to leverage a trip he was going to take anyway and recoup some of the trip’s expenses.

This week, the company has been taking votes from UC Berkeley students to see what country the team should visit to perform a mass delivery. When they have a winner, the team will go to that country and deliver as many parcels as they can from students to the people in that country. The company will announce the winning country this weekend, though Hollander says China is in the lead for now.

The service is creative, but there are a lot of variables that can get in the way of smooth service. First, a whole lot of it is based on chance. What are the odds that I’ll have a Facebook friend who happens to be going to Spain, let alone the same part of Spain, at the exact time I want my parcel there?

The monetization plan could be promising, but for the time being, the company might have to limp along before it gets there. For now, there is also no incentive for the person carrying the package. Hollander says people will do it out of sheer decency and a desire to help friends. That might be presumptuous, especially if it means taking some time away from a person’s vacation to meet with the parcel recipient to hand deliver it. Call me cynical, but it seems risky to build a commercial company that hinges on selflessness.

Last, there may be security or customs issues to come out of the woodwork. Rule No. 1, Hollander says, is always to look inside the box to verify the contents are nothing illicit, and to make sure you haven’t been unwittingly turned into a drug mule without your knowing.  Potential gray areas could also spring up if the package gets damaged somehow during travel. Which means the company will have to introduce some sort of enforceable accountability policy, or a waiver. (Probably the latter.)

The idea is clever, and its an uncrowded niche market to operate in – an area that has seen little to no disruption. If the company can figure out the quirks to allow bigger shipments, it could be a win for immigrant populations, especially for disparate communities that have trouble organizing. But that’s a long way off. The company will need to figure out several things before that kind of service can work. For that matter, it needs to figure out a few things to really make this current service work as well.

[Image Credit: delgrosso on Flickr]