Shippers scramble as holiday shopping goes online

COLONIE — Merchants told us to shop early. Health officials told us to stay home.

The result? An avalanche of online purchases that is burying parcel delivery trucks and postal carriers.

UPS, which normally operates one daily round-trip from Albany International Airport, upped that to two round-trips by early November, then doubled it again.

This week, UPS began operating four round-trips from Albany most weekdays. Each of the Boeing 757s can carry up to 88,000 pounds, or 44 tons, of cargo.

“It’s an indication of the online shopping that’s going on nationally and in the Capital Region,” observed airport spokesman Doug Myers.

UPS has also altered some of its package pickups to match demand with its capacity, UPS spokesman Jim Mayer told the Times Union, after The Wall Street Journal reported that drivers had been instructed not to pick up some packages from its largest customers following Cyber Monday promotions.

“Agreed upon strategies for our largest customers include shifting package volume away from the heaviest demand shipping days, fully utilizing weekend capacity, and aligning promotional strategies with capacity,” UPS said in a statement.

The early shopping advice did help reduce Black Friday crowds as the coronavirus accelerated its spread. And consumers  benefited from sales that began as early as late October.

“More than half of holiday shoppers took advantage” of the early promotions, said Melissa O’Connor, president and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State.

The number of consumers shopping online only during Black Friday weekend surged 44 percent, according to the National Retail Federation, to 95.7 million.

The state Retail Council this year established an online shopping portal for smaller merchants who otherwise might not have an online presence. So far, the retailnewyork.com website has more than 550 participating retailers, said O’Connor.

They, too, needed to ship, said UPS.

“UPS is committed to maintaining the reliability of its network for other customers, including small- and medium-sized businesses, which have been hit hardest during the pandemic and are also seeing an increase in holiday volume,” UPS said. “The network capacity for our SMB customers must also remain strong to help the recovery of this vital part of the economy.”

The online surge didn’t come as a surprise, and shippers tried to prepare. UPS added flights, while FedEx hired 70,000 extra employees for the holidays. The U.S. Postal Service also ramped up hiring for the period.

“America is moving its shopping online in massive ways and while USPS is ready to do its part, we are greatly encouraging our customers to do their part as well,” U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Maureen Marion told the Times Union. “That means order and mail as early as possible.”

At Albany-based CommerceHub, which provides order fulfillment technology for major retailers including Best Buy and Walmart, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Promotion Erik Morton wrote that the pandemic brought online shopping “to a new level, and it’s here to stay for the holidays.

“What’s more, in-store Black Friday is gone as we know it,” Morton added. “A majority of our survey respondents (70%) said that they wouldn’t be braving the lines and chaos this year.”


CommerceHub’s holiday survey also found that despite the early promotions, many respondents — 71 percent — thought “there are going to be better deals online for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and will hold out on holiday shopping until then, potentially pushing the logistics process to its limits,” Morton wrote in commentary accompanying the survey.

But for those who heeded retailers’ advice to shop early, the pressure has eased.

Asked whether she’d completed her shopping, O’Connor said “not yet, but almost,” adding that “I’m more ahead now than I’ve ever been.”

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