No offense to Santa and his reindeer, but they’ve got nothing on the United States Postal Service (USPS). Every year, the days sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas offer a unique challenge to delivery services handling the millions of online orders placed in those weeks. And 2019 has presented a perfect storm of sorts for FedEx, UPS, Amazon and the USPS.
Winter storms blew through the North and Northeastern states right after Thanksgiving, causing immediate delays on Black Friday and Cyber Monday orders. There was still plenty of time before Christmas, but as anyone knows, it’s hard to recover from a stumble out of the gate. And sure enough, the early delay caused lingering bottlenecks.
While e-commerce is bullish this year, the U.S. is seeing the tightest labor market in half a century. The major players in the delivery world haven’t been able to hire as many employees as they need and are suffering the repercussions of understaffing. Inversely, giant retailers with more resources have overstaffed in many cases. Retailers in 2019 were able to offer an average salary bump of 30% over last year, and in October added 137,000 temporary employees, 18% more than last year, for the holiday season. On the other hand, delivery and transportation companies’ hiring fell 17% over last season.
This year, Thanksgiving fell on the latest possible date, leaving just 26 days between Black Friday shopping and Christmas morning. The nation hasn’t experienced such a narrow window in six years, when, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, online spending was only half what it is today.
Due to its isolated location, Key West depends on e-commerce more than other communities. Locals are masters at supporting small businesses, but they can’t run to Target for a last-minute gift for almost-forgotten Aunt Betty at 10 p.m. And let’s face it, sometimes we just really want that damn Instant Pot. Amazon Prime satisfies whims and compensates for our poor planning. But all those orders result in more movement for local carriers, particularly the USPS, which handles more Amazon shipments since the company cut ties with FedEx. As the behemoth of holiday shippers, the USPS delivers more packages than any private carrier, roughly 800 million gifts nationwide in just one month.
As I duck into an alleyway with a local postal carrier walking his daily route, I start to really think about the labyrinthine nature of Key West. He may only have 20 addresses on this street, but each one can easily include four apartments or host a secluded mother-in-law suite in the back. Taking heavily condensed housing into account makes it all the more impressive when he casually tells me that everyone on staff is adopting extra routes during season. Each of those routes during the holidays can easily bear 200 packages on a busy day. But my letter-carrying friend takes it all in stride, even offering to cover his ailing coworker’s route for a stint. To make it all happen, he’s at the downtown office at 7 a.m. every day to start his full 12-hour shift. Most of that time is spent on his feet or cruising short distances in a postal truck without air conditioning.
Thankfully, the exhausting elements are balanced by kind patrons and neighborhood dogs, which he happily bribes with treats. “The other day a woman handed me a $50 gift certificate,” he told me. A few days before that, a woman in an office near Shakti Yoga insisted on following him into the yoga studio as he delivered their mail so she could buy him a shot. It was midday and both were at work, so the shot was a non-alcoholic blend of lemon, turmeric, honey and cayenne, but it was just what the doctor ordered. “I was surprised how much it woke me up!” His wife now makes him a version of the shot to start his day.
All told, delivery services distribute more than 2 billion packages during the holidays. Two. Billion. New automation technology and an increase in sorting facilities will help alleviate some congestion, but it ultimately comes down to hard-working employees pounding the pavement in towns across the country.
May they all have encouraging communities, supportive spouses and a wealth of lemon-cayenne shots. Happy holidays, and thank you, mail carriers, for delivering Christmas in the Keys.