Department stores order on an as-needed basis, and not in bulk, making fast delivery essential, she said.

"It's called 'just-in-time,' and that means exactly what you think," Berk said. "The stores order from us depending on how an item sells, so they aren't stuck with unwanted items or sizes."

The company ships between 50 and 100 parcels each day, she said. Among her clients are Dayton Hudson Corp. (which owns the Mervyns and Hudsons department store chains) and Federated Department Stores Inc. (which owns Macy's and Bloomingdales).

Another side of retail mail-order businesses are also dependent on delivery services. Edward Hill's DirectOrder Promotions spends "thousands of dollars each week" in overnight charges to deliver his wrenches around the country, he said.

"We were lucky UPS stops delivery and we just pay a bit more and switch to someone else," Hill said. "But what if there was nobody else? We'd be sunk."

Are businesses too dependent on fast delivery?

Yes, says David Lombardo, a Loyola Marymount University professor who specializes in technology. But just as railroads no longer enjoy dominance in transportation, express delivery services will one day be less critical than they are today, he said.

Already, law firms, real estate brokers and architects can ship many of their documents over the Information Superhighway, he said.

"E-mail is revolutionizing how we do things, and it has certainly taken a bite out of the delivery companies," he said. "Take Hollywood for example. You don't need to have a script delivered by hand anymore now, they can either fax it page-by-page or upload it on the Internet."

But that doesn't help if there's more than paper that needs to be delivered.

In the final days before the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Pathfinder Mission took off for Mars, officials realized the space craft was missing one important item.

"The flag," said Rob Manning, flight system chief engineer, "We forgot the flag."

JPL scientists quickly designed a flag that would be resistant to heat, radiation and ultra-violet rays. The stars and stripes made it to Cape Canaveral within one day before the Dec. 4 takeoff and was the last thing placed on board the Pathfinder capsule.

"Here we are going to another planet traveling through space and we had to rely on Federal Express to get the flag there," he said. "Seems kind of ironic."

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