Delivering promises and products to customers is really not the responsibility of the supplier. Once the order is packed and despatched, it's in the lap of the gods. Or, in the case of home delivery, the carrier company and its drivers. It's what happens on the ground that will make all the difference, in the end, between success and failure.

There is only one way to minimise the myriad problems that may arise and it really is a simple solution. Do it yourself. Successful distribution partnerships between food producers or retailers and customers are largely a matter of control.

For supermarket chains with sufficient staff and investment capital to spend on vans that can deliver fresh, frozen and ambient product as well as manage employee relations sufficiently well to motivate the drivers to do their jobs well, relatively high levels of control can be achieved.

Independent retailers, determined to compete and with their own vans, can also manage a significant element of control although other factors may have to be sacrificed. Amongst these are the breadth of geographic area, both in terms of suppliers and customers. Food Ferry (www.foodferry.co.uk), for example, delivers to customers in London on the day their order is placed using their own vans. But, in order to include fresh products on their list, they must source and collect these from a tight enough area to avoid holding stock.

James Millar, co-founder of Food Ferry, describes the company as, basically, a logistics company. It may buy and sell food but its strength lies in actually delivering it to the customer's door during pre-agreed, flexible time slots, which include evening deliveries. Millar says they pride themselves on being "a fast, friendly, very honourable, service-oriented company". In order to survive, they have to differentiate themselves from the supermarkets and emphasise that one of the key differences is the service.

Food Ferry has a warehouse and keeps stock of ambient goods. Fresh products are collected or delivered on the day they are required for despatch. In order to fulfil this promise to customers, they are restricted to purchasing only from suppliers within a limited geographical region. Anyone whose products they cannot order in the morning and collect in the afternoon is automatically disqualified.

For safety's sake, they do not use third party carriers. Their drivers are dedicated to the company and do not deliver other companies' products.

Smaller independent suppliers, who must rely on third-party carriers, may find their product offering shaped by their degree of confidence in drivers. Wessex Provender (www.provender.co.uk) is a bricks and mortar delicatessen with a thriving, award- winning website. Proprietor Roger Biddle spends the bulk of his time finding ways to attract customers, convert surfers into punters and prevail upon carriers to fulfil orders promptly. No matter how strong he believes his relationship with his distributor to be, however, he takes extra precautions at peak periods. Perishables with a short shelf life are omitted from gift hampers and all parcels are despatched with sufficient time to give the carrier a generous margin for error. Customers may lose out in not being able to select certain products at certain times but Biddle feels this is better than accepting an order where there is a risk of it not being delivered in time for a crucial date.

For suppliers where distance is to be no object, there is little alternative to using a third-party carrier, one with sufficient experience and capability to cross international barriers - and the willingness to use airplanes to speed up delivery between countries. As customers become more selective in their purchases, preferring speciality foods from artisan producers and purchased through dedicated middlemen than large, impersonal supermarkets, the onus is on the supplier to meet demand.

Italian firm Esperya (www.esperya.co.uk) has been trading on its own turf for some time but extended operations to the UK in Summer 2000. Orders are delivered by DHL the day following despatch. They're first flown from Italy and then taken by road from the UK point of entry. Esperya's products come from small, artisan producers and many are fresh, with a limited shelf life, making speed and reliability in deliver essential.

World Marechal (www.worldmarechal.com), based in France, uses UPS for its deliveries throughout Europe. There are no fresh products on their list, however, and far more wine is sold than food, which reduces the need for urgency and speed. Having said that, the company increased its capital considerably at the end of 2000 in order to set up 150 bricks and mortar shops and prioritise its online b2b sales.

In both cases, the vast majority of customers are satisfied but there are inevitable problems. In addition to the usual difficulties that may be experienced, weather conditions present more significant obstacles, delaying or preventing flights.

Thus far, both Esperya and World Marechal are pleased with their experience in the UK. Although there have been hiccups with deliveries, the percentage is small enough not to be worrying - except for the customers involved. Working closely with their carriers is the best they can do, emphasising the importance of drivers fulfilling sales executives' promises. But that sort of dependency is risky.

Whether delivering within your own country, or between countries, the synergy between supplier needs and carrier capabilities must be as closely matched as possible. Many of the major carrier companies are more used to coping with large boxes and pallets going into premises on industrial estates where there is always someone available to accept delivery. Coping with small parcels destined for residential areas with traffic congestion, parking problems and customers who are not necessarily waiting by the door to welcome them has entailed strategic changes that are sometimes more trouble than they're worth.

Waitrose has found a way of compromise that many envy. Using their own vans, they sell only into businesses with 300 or more terminals on their employees' desks. Orders are placed while customers are at work and delivered to them before they go home. Thus the onus is on the customer to finish the job. By definition, Waitrose is assuming that the customer has driven to work and doesn't have to negotiate public transport with their parcels so, again, they are likely to be located on business parks where drivers can easily make multiple drops in a single hit. Hey presto, control over both driver and customer have been achieved. And they don't even need to worry about time slots or flexibility.

By Bernice Hurst