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Massive Online Shopping Increase Creates Shipping Logjam


As my children will quickly remind anyone who listens, we're just one week away from Christmas Eve at this point. And if you haven't ordered all your gifts online yet, you might be in a bit of a bind. There's been a massive increase in online shopping this year, so the supply chain is stretched thin. And delivery companies can't keep up. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's early evening. And UPS driver Paul Jablonski (ph) is gathering up another armload of packages in his familiar boxy, brown truck on a residential street on Chicago's northwest side.

PAUL JABLONSKI: It's crazy. But with the COVID, it's a little bit crazier. So...

SCHAPER: The 24-year-old driver says he's never been this busy.

JABLONSKI: I actually just had a guy take some stops off me because they sent me out too heavy. So...

SCHAPER: Too heavy, meaning way too many packages to deliver in one day.

JABLONSKI: And they sent me out with, like, 280 today. Normal day without Christmastime, it's like, maybe, 200, 190. I can finish in about eight hours. But 280, it's - that's too much (laughter).

SCHAPER: Jablonski says a surge in deliveries back when the pandemic began made it feel like Christmas in March. So the holiday rush now is piling more packages on top of that. And the numbers bear that out. Satish Jindel heads ShipMatrix, a company providing technology and data to shippers. He says online shopping has skyrocketed because of COVID.

SATISH JINDEL: Basic day-to-day items that people consume are now being ordered online. So that increased demand by about 30%.

SCHAPER: So Jindel says the annual 30 to 40% surge in holiday package delivery is coming on top of the 30% increase already this year. As a result, his firm estimates that more than 3 billion packages will be shipped between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, a huge increase that he says exceeds the supply chain's capacity.

JINDEL: It creates a logjam.

SCHAPER: Increased hiring by shipping companies and additional weekend deliveries by UPS and the Postal Service have helped. But shippers still have close to 3.5 million more packages a day than they can deliver. Anne Goodchild heads the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. She says it's not just the increase in volume that shippers are contending with.

ANNE GOODCHILD: There are dramatic changes to how people are buying, what they're buying and, you know, where goods need to move through the supply chain.

SCHAPER: For example, Goodchild says many items that used to be bundled and shipped to workplaces or retail stores are now being shipped directly to people's homes. Still, given the complexities of all the changes this year, Goodchild says the supply chain is holding up remarkably well.

GOODCHILD: Overwhelmingly, you know, it's been a story of resilience and adaptation that I think the supply chain and the package carrier industry deserves a lot of credit for.

SCHAPER: Nonetheless, combine all of the changes this year with the usual shipping capacity crunch around the holidays, add the potential for bad winter weather, and Goodchild says procrastinating online gift shoppers shouldn't wait any longer.

GOODCHILD: If you want things by the 25th, yeah, you should go do your shopping now.

SCHAPER: Back on Chicago's northwest side, Paul Jablonski still has a spring in his step as he puts a few packages on a doorstep.


SCHAPER: He scans them, alerting the customer that they're there and then trots across the street with a few more packages. Still, the end of his long day is nowhere in sight.

JABLONSKI: I usually get about 13, 14 hours a day - good overtime.

SCHAPER: And then he heads back to the big, brown truck.


JABLONSKI: I got to drive now. So...

SCHAPER: Jablonski fires up the engine...

JABLONSKI: Have a good one. Happy holidays.

SCHAPER: ...And he pulls away from the curb, driving just a few hundred feet before pulling over again for his next stop just halfway up the same block.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAKAYA MCCRAVEN'S "JHO'S BEAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.