Online competitors move in on shippers

A renter packs his things into a UHaul.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Moving can be a nightmare. The packing and unpacking. The changing of addresses. All of it just adds up to one big, fat bad experience. So nobody does it unless they have to. Throw in falling house prices and a still-weak job market and more people are simply staying put. That means moving companies have fewer customers nowadays. But it is not just the recession that's causing headaches for traditional movers.

Lenora Chu reports.


Lenora Chu: When Jerry Eldred had to relocate from New Hampshire to Texas, his new employer gave him a shoestring budget for the move.

Jerry Eldred: I definitely could not do one of the Cadillac moves, Mayflower, those kinds of companies.

The quotes he got from full-service movers came in at seven grand and up. So he hopped on uShip.com. That's the online site where movers bid for your business. Eldred listed the contents of his three-bedroom house and stated his price.

Eldred: So I put my lowball figure on there, the lowest I figured somebody might possibly be willing to take.

The bids started coming in. Eldred read the online reviews of companies who submitted quotes and eventually chose a local trucker. Eldred says he was nervous at first about trusting his belongings to someone he found on the Internet. But he met with the trucker first before signing on the dotted line. The final price? A touch over three grand. And his stuff arrived safe and sound.

Eldred: So for a lot less money I got a lot
faster delivery. That was kind of the amazing thing to me.

And it's been amazing for uShip.com. The company's revenues have doubled over the last year. That's despite Census data that shows fewer Americans moved in 2008 than at any time since 1962.

uShip CEO Matt Chasen.

Matt Chasen: So I think people are just changing their behavior and going to places like uShip where they can try to get better pricing and more competitive quotes.

Enter the new landscape for the moving industry, where buyers and sellers connect on the Internet. Steve Weitekamp is president of the California Moving and Storage Association.

Steve Weitekamp: Ten years ago the average consumer went to the Yellow Pages, opened up the section that said "Movers," and the traditional movers had the large ads. Now most people go onto the Internet, they type in movers and they get all kinds of options.

Traditional movers are having to get creative to find new customers and inspire loyalty. Especially when plummeting house prices mean people are staying put.

In Santa Monica, Anne Burkley is watching movers roll a BBQ grill into her new home. Her mover, Ram Katalan, is supervising a half-dozen workers on the job. He says his full-service company, Northstar Moving, has seen year-over-year growth screech to a halt.

Ram Katalan: These days we're about a 12 to 14 percent decrease from previous year.

So Katalan is going the extra mile on branding and service. He's greening up his moving trucks with biodiesel, slashing prices when customers ask for recycled boxes and putting pets in a luxury daycare free of charge during a move.

Katalan: We understand that being a moving company is not just about moving boxes from one place to another. It's about making sure we address all of our clients' needs.

Katalan's not worried about the online competition, he says, because he has loyal customers like Anne Burkley. Burkley has hired Northstar before, and she says she'd do it again.

Anne Burkley: Putting everything you own in the hands of some company that you don't really know is sort of, for me, uncomfortable.

Burkley says moving is too personal to trust to the Internet.

In Los Angeles, I'm Lenora Chu for Marketplace.

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