Cedars Sinai Medical Center's Dan Mendias sends out about 20 packages every day on an urgent mission: to get tissue samples and other medical supplies to doctors throughout the nation.

As a late-night infomercial pitchman, Edward Hill sells "an amazing multi-purpose" wrench through a mail-order business out of Calabasas. A typical week might find his company shipping 400 to 500 of the gizmos.

And when the Los Angeles Dodgers go off on an extended road trip, George Barajas scrambles to rush daily shipments of bats, uniforms and cleats before the next day's game.

These are just some of the cases in which local businesses demand that goods be shipped quickly to their destinations. If nothing else, the bitter strike against the United Parcel Service by the Teamsters illustrates how the express delivery service has been woven into the fabric of business in Los Angeles and throughout the country.

"We are a society that needs it now, and sometimes even tomorrow can be too late," said David Wride, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California. "Entire industries exist only for their ability to move parts, products or paperwork within 24 hours."

The nation's largest delivery services which along with UPS includes DHL, the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express Corp., RPS, and Airborne Express moved a combined 21 million packages each day last year (including overnight packages and shipments allotted for delivery over two or more days), according to Ronald Farley with the National Delivery and Transportation Association.

Their combined fleets account for about 240,000 trucks and 1,600 airplanes, according to the NDTA, a West Virginia-based trade group that monitors the overnight industry.

An array of businesses are dependent on the nation's delivery services: software houses, computer resellers, auto parts manufacturers, garment makers, travel agencies and movie theater chains, among just a few.

"The only reason we started this company is because of the ability to get airline tickets across the country for a small cost," said Chip Carlson, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Ticket Exchange. "That's our bread and butter."

The company acts as a ticket broker, buying up thousands of discounted airline tickets in bulk and passing on the savings to travelers. Carlson said the company spends about $2,000 a week in overnight bills.

Clothing manufacturers have also become hooked on overnight delivery, said Cloie Berk, owner of Jazzed Inc., a Burbank-based manufacturer of women's gym wear.

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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