Stressed by bad weather and a short calendar, the 2019 peak holiday season is proving to be a tough one for parcel carriers, pushing retailers to offer more frequent updates to impatient customers. Shippers hope the increased visibility will soothe shoppers' anxiety and reduce returns and refunds.
The season started with tough conditions right off the bat, as Thanksgiving this year fell on its latest possible date on the calendar, shaving six days off a six-week season, and the holiday was immediately followed by winter storms striking both coasts over the Black Friday shopping weekend.
Despite those conditions, the flood of packages and holiday cards hasn't ceased, with the U.S. Postal Service reporting that it handled an estimated nearly 2.5 billion pieces of mail, including packages, in the week of Dec. 16 alone. Overall, USPS anticipates delivering 800 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
Carriers are straining under that pressure, with Atlanta-based UPS Inc. warning in a recent release: "Due to increased volume during the holiday season, service modifications will be in effect for some packages tendered through December 27. During this time, a limited number of packages with certain origins and destinations may experience additional time in transit."
Conditions were even worse at Memphis-based FedEx Corp., which reported on Dec. 17 that its fiscal 2020 profit would fall steeply, from $935 million the year before to just $560 million in net income. "Fiscal 2020 is a year of continued significant challenges and changes for FedEx, particularly in the quarter just ended due to the compressed shipping season," FedEx CEO Frederick W. Smith said in a release.
According to the company, its operating results declined "due to weak global economic conditions, increased FedEx Ground costs from expanded service offerings, the loss of business from a large customer, a continuing mix shift to lower-yielding services and a more competitive pricing environment." In addition, the later timing of the Thanksgiving holiday resulted in the shifting of Cyber Week into December, which negatively impacted the quarter's results, FedEx said.
Getting orders to customers on time in that context is even harder than in a typical peak season, putting extra pressure on fulfillment and shipping operations.
For example, Metalbird is a New Zealand-based company making graceful bird statues that can be attached to fences, utility poles, or trees as decorative attachments. The company ships many of its flat, steel stencils to U.S. consumers via FedEx, and has seen growing demand for its artistic creations.
But on Dec. 22, the company emailed a logistics reporter for this magazine, stating: "We've just completed the review of our Christmas shipping and I'm sorry to inform you but despite you ordering before our cut-off date of the 16th of December, your order hasn't shipped. The delay has been due to a combination of our internal systems being stretched and the couriers struggling to get orders out on time for Christmas this year," Metalbird said.
The email apologized that the item would not arrive in time for Christmas, and offered to cancel the order for a full refund or else to continue the fulfillment process with a delayed estimated time of arrival (ETA). For this reporter, the information update was sufficient to allay any holiday panic, and the bird's arrival was simply postponed, allowing for a slightly longer migration from New Zealand to North America.