The predictions have come true: early this fall, retail analysts foresaw that this year’s pandemic restrictions would drive even more holiday shoppers online, and that more gifts would be exchanged remotely as many families and friends gather virtually rather than in person.
All of which means that shippers are deluged with cards and packages, with online orders and purchased gifts filling trucks and delivery vans.
Victor Allen saw the deluge coming. The owner of the Mailbox Express store in Wilmington’s Landfall Shopping Center said the volume of parcels coming into his shop for shipment via FedEx and DHL started increasing before Thanksgiving. His business is up between 35% and 40% over a typical holiday season, he said Wednesday.
“I was afraid it was going to be bigger than we could handle, but we’re managing so far,” he said. “We keep thinking we’ve seen the peak, but that hasn’t happened yet. In years past, this week would be busy, but Monday, Dec. 14 was our busiest day ever. And Monday, Dec. 7 was very busy as well.”
Tina Martin, manager of the UPS Store in Shallotte, unlocked the doors at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning. By 8:30, she had “a line out the door.”
“We’ve been up [in volume] all year because of COVID,” she said. “Our increase, customer-count-wise, is between 25% and 30%. A lot more people are shipping a lot more packages this holiday season because they can’t travel.”
Like Allen, Martin and her staff expect each day to bring a decline in demand, but so far there is no letup.
Officials with the U.S. Postal Service stated in a news release Monday, “While every year the Postal Service carefully plans for peak holiday season, a historic record of holiday volume compounded by a temporary employee shortage due to the COVID-19 surge, and capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail, are leading to temporary delays.
"These challenges are being felt by shippers across the board.”
The USPS’s 644,000 employees are “working tirelessly throughout these unique conditions to ensure delivery of holiday gifts and greetings,” USPS spokeswoman Kristin Seaver said in the release, which encouraged individuals to mail their cards and gifts as soon as possible.
“We thank our customers for their continued support, and we are committed to making sure gifts and cards are delivered on time to celebrate the holidays,” Seaver added.
The Postal Service has expanded its window hours in some locations, hired seasonal workers, scheduled extra deliveries – including some Sunday deliveries – purchased new equipment, leased extra vehicles and improved its package-tracking capabilities, according to the release.
FedEx, too, saw the boom coming over the horizon.
“Online shopping and shipping volumes this holiday season are expected to break records,” company spokeswoman Rae Lynn Rushing said Tuesday. “The exponential growth of e-commerce, underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, will continue during the 2020 holiday season, with more packages hitting our network than ever before.
“We project that peak shipping volumes will be up 22% year-over-year and have been preparing for the influx of packages for months in advance of an unprecedented holiday season.”
Seth Shah, owner of the UPS Store in Wilmington’s University Commons on South College Road, has seen his business rise about 15% this season as he serves a customer base that is about 70% residential and 30% commercial.
He’s also paying attention to what UPS is telling him about possible delays because of volume and – on top of everything – the severe winter storm forecast for Wednesday and Thursday that is affecting much of the East Coast.
“They are doing everything they can” to deliver packages on time, he said Wednesday of UPS, noting that weather disruption will have an impact on shippers across the board.
“There’s always a disclaimer,” about on-time deliveries when circumstances arise that are beyond the shipper’s control, he added.
FedEx also alerted its customers to possible delays, saying in an advisory, “We are monitoring winter storms across the Northeast and have contingency plans in place to lessen the effect of inclement weather on operations and service. Mother Nature can create challenges, and the safety of our team members remains our top priority as we aim to provide the best possible service to our customers.”
UPS Store owner Laura Nasser, who reports a rise of 33% in volume at her business in downtown Wilmington this holiday season, is seeing another trend happening.
“We have a Toys for Tots drop-off box here in the store, and people are being incredibly generous,” she said Wednesday. “I’d estimate that about 95% of our customers are willing to donate.”
While the coronavirus and resulting economic downturn have had an impact on most people she encounters, many want to help others, she said, adding, “It makes me feel very good about our society.”