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United Parcel Service employees load packages at the UPS Worldport International Hub in Louisville, Kentucky
Reuters/John Sommers
UPS, FedEx, and USPS have been overwhelmed by deliveries this holiday season.
  • Marc Bain
By Marc Bain

Fashion reporter

The holidays are always a busy season for delivery networks in the US, but this year stretched them to the limit.

The pandemic drove a surge in online shopping as more gift buyers turned to e-commerce, adding to the already elevated level of online sales from countless shoppers avoiding stores and close proximity to others. The torrent of packages overwhelmed parcel services and led to numerous late deliveries.

Any remaining delays, however, are not likely to be extensive, according to Satish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a software company that helps retailers and other customers track deliveries and collects data on millions of shipments. By Monday, Jan. 4, “I would say 99.5% of all packages shipped by Christmas—no matter by ground or express—will have been delivered,” he says.

ShipMatrix estimates just over 3 billion packages were shipped between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year in the US, or about about 800 million more than last year. It’s a huge number of items to process. Retailers warned shoppers to order early if they wanted to receive gifts by Christmas, and UPS even put restrictions on parcels from large retailers such as Nike and Gap as it tried to keep up.

“Every package that gets created results in extra hands and legs associated with it,” Jindel says. “It requires human beings in the buildings to load and unload from the trailer. It requires human beings to take it out on the road, to either pick it up or deliver.”

UPS hired about 100,000 seasonal workers to make sure its operations could handle the load, roughly in line with its seasonal hiring last year but on top of the 39,000 new, permanent employees it added between April and June. It also built new facilities in anticipation of peak season, added to its aircraft fleet, and expanded weekend operations. A spokesperson says the company continues to handle all planned shipments from customers, and when the volume of shipments exceeds what they agreed upon based on the customer’s forecast, they’re working with them to pick-up and deliver as soon as they have capacity.

FedEx hired more than 70,000 seasonal workers and says it took different steps to prepare for the holiday rush, including extending operations to seven days a week and improving the efficiency of delivery routes.

A spokesperson for the US postal service says it delivered a record number of packages this year despite the pandemic affecting the availability of its workforce and capacity issues with airlifts and trucking. It also isn’t setting limits on how many parcels it will accept from customers.

Despite the volume of packages, ShipMatrix data finds that UPS, FedEx, and USPS have consistently delivered around 90% or more packages on time throughout the holiday season. “That is a phenomenal performance,” Jindel says. At least one week actually saw fewer late deliveries than last year (pdf).

It may not be much comfort to those whose packages are delayed, or worse, lost. Parcels can and do get misplaced.

The great majority, however, will arrive at their destinations, hopefully sooner than later.

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