Last Minute Crush

Both UPS and FedEx announced that a significant number of Christmas packages were not delivered on time and in time for Christmas, although both package delivery services admitted that those were packages promised for Christmas delivery.  The non-delivery was the result of a confluence of circumstances, some of which were unforeseen and some of which should have been anticipated.  The unforeseen factor was the occurrence of the worst ice storms in ten years in the northeastern United States.

The factors that should have been seen and planned for were: (1) the shortest period between Thanksgiving and Christmas in years, effectively allowing buyers a week less to purchase and ship goods; (2) the growth in the number of Americans who wait until the last minute to buy and ship Christmas gifts; and (3) the growing shortage of “free time” among higher-earning gift-givers.

Despite the ever-earlier onset of the Christmas shopping season, a substantial number of shoppers do not begin shopping for Christmas gifts until after Thanksgiving.  This year Thanksgiving fell on one of the latest dates possible, effectively cutting off one week of shopping (and shipping) time, in effect meaning that the shipping needs of those shoppers were jammed into 80% of the time they normally had, and most likely many of them never even realized that until a week or two before Christmas, when they suddenly needed to buy and ship.

In addition, with the growth of overnight shipping and the entire U.S. culture of “you can have it now,” a significant and growing percentage of Americans don’t plan that far ahead and then cram it all in at the last moment.

Some of those shoppers feel as though they have no choice, and paradoxically some are those employed in various retail industries.  Because in many retail fields, the financial success of the business depends on the Christmas season, executives and employees in those fields are pressed into working longer and harder.  In other areas of the economy, businesses tend to press their employees to complete projects before Christmas, knowing that many will take off vacation or leave time to spend time with family over the holidays.  This is certainly true in at least some publishing firms – I’ve been asked to have manuscripts, proofed galleys and other materials to my publisher well before Christmas for the reason that very little gets done in the week after Christmas.  Effectively, much of the business year ends around December 23rd.

Yet, despite the obviousness of these factors, on December 24th, UPS admitted that the volume of packages accepted for shipment and delivery before Christmas day exceeded the capacity of their system.  I understand the problem the company faces.  UPS doesn’t want to create and maintain a system built to handle a volume of packages that only occurs a few days a year.  FedEx didn’t say much beyond admitting that very few of their packages were delayed – except one of those was purchased a week before Christmas by my wife, and, as of the time I write this, still hasn’t arrived, although promised for Christmas delivery. At the same time, neither FedEx nor UPS nor the various merchants really want to impose cut-off dates for Christmas delivery because it goes against the explicit promises they’ve been making for years.

But… given the changes in culture and consumer expectations and perceived needs, I don’t see this as a one-time problem.  Then again, maybe by next year, when it happens again, most people will have forgotten the previous year’s problems.

3 thoughts on “Last Minute Crush”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Being responsible sucks, especially when you actually have to own it.

    UPS/FedEx should’ve imposed a curfew.

    Shoppers should’ve stopped and actually looked at a calendar. The stores DID, but caught endless grief from many corners about starting the Xmas season before Thanksgiving (yes, I am in one of those corners).

    The Grinches who think that getting a gift on Christmas is what matters should re-examine their values.

    The fact that our economy is built on ‘consumerism’ bothers me, but I don’t have a better system in mind just yet. It may be that we’ve become too populous as a nation to do it any other way and still pretend to have a free market.

  2. Matthew E. says:

    As a UPS’er, the challenges of staffing and coordinating the ever fluctuating requirements of the Christmas holiday are daunting. While I can’t share the technical aspects of the missed deliveries, I will mention an old project management adage. Adding 2 people to a task does not half the time. Besides the human element to package delivery, there are also facilities and other physical assets (trucks, planes, etc.) If we designed our systems to always handle 100 widgets a day, but we normally only make 20 widgets a day, we would be out of business. The effort that goes into Holiday planning is staggering and whatever issues we had will be corrected, so that next year will be significantly better.
    While I appreciate the last minute premium shipments as a shareholder, I wish more people would plan ahead.

  3. And, by the way, the package that my wife ordered for 2-day FedEx shipping finally arrived, 12 days after it was ordered and 7 days after it was shipped.

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