It has been a part of everyday American life for nearly a hundred years — United Parcel Service vans trundling along leafy suburban roads and through urban commercial districts, delivering small packages to homes and offices.
But increasingly, the distinctive brown livery of UPS is absent from the scene. In its place has come the white and purple of FedEx and bright yellow of DHL.
Analysts believe UPS's declining U.S. market share was partly to blame for this month's surprise warning on its fourth-quarter earnings.
"Brown", as the company is known, is expected to provide a clearer explanation when it announces full-year results tomorrow.
According to JPMorgan, UPS's share of the domestic parcel market fell from 48 to 47 percent last year, while FedEx increased its portion from 29 to 31 percent.
DHL, owned by Germany's Deutsche Post, commanded about 7 percent. JPMorgan says the company could capture up to 18 percent by 2006, following its $1.2 billion expansion in the U.S.
North America is just one battleground in an intensifying global parcel war between the three express delivery giants.
UPS and FedEx want to loosen DHL's dominance in Europe and all three are building footholds in the emerging Chinese market.
Investors will be listening closely tomorrow to decipher whether Brown's poor fourth quarter was a blip, or a sign it is being outflanked by its rivals. Shares in UPS have dropped nearly 10 percent since the warning.
UPS blamed bad weather in the U.S. during the peak Christmas season and a sharper than expected drop in business following the holiday. But when FedEx boasted of a "strong holiday season" and reaffirmed its bullish financial targets, analysts warned that Brown's problems could be more deep-rooted.
Donald Broughton, analyst at AG Edwards, believes UPS is experiencing glitches with newly-introduced package flow technology that was supposed to make its network more efficient but has actually made things worse.
"As a result, we believe several large ground contracts may move from UPS to FedEx in the coming months," he says.
However, Satish Jindel, president of SJ Consulting, warns against excessive gloom. He says it was inevitable UPS would lose U.S. market share as FedEx and DHL expanded but predicts there will be enough business to keep all three busy as global trade increases.
"Transport and logistics are becoming a more critical part of global commerce as supply chains stretch across oceans and borders. There are only a few companies that can provide global solutions to customers, and UPS is one of them."
Last year's acquisition by UPS of freight company Menlo Worldwide Forwarding showed how package delivery groups were diversifying into broader logistics. FedEx has also expanded into freight transport.
"It is no longer good enough to get a small parcel from Atlanta to Memphis," says Mr. Jindel. "Customers are demanding integrated solutions for their entire global supply chains."
He predicts that the package delivery giants will continue to lead consolidation of smaller freight companies until the global logistics industry is dominated by a handful of companies.
Besides UPS, FedEx and DHL, Mr. Jindel names Netherlands-based TNT and Exel of the UK as other likely global players.
However, skeptics doubt that global growth will come quickly enough for UPS to offset weakness in its domestic package business, which still accounts for nearly three-quarters of sales.
Edward Wolfe, analyst at Bear Stearns, wrote recently that UPS had not responded quickly enough to the shift in manufacturing to China and other low-cost countries, leaving it with too much infrastructure and cost in its slow-growing U.S. market and too little capacity in the fast-expanding international business. He says UPS will have to take action to reduce domestic costs — something FedEx has already done.
In the meantime, says Mr. Broughton, FedEx is accelerating away from its underperforming rival, suggesting that the days of Brown's dominance on U.S. streets could be gone for good.