The unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) reads, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
It may be time to add the coronavirus to the list.
That’s because the pandemic has resulted in a significant increase in traffic to online retailers like Costco, Target and Walmart, as well as an increase in sale conversions as more consumers began staying home.
Some customers, of course, will pick up their orders. But the remainder must be delivered by the essential workers for couriers like the USPS, UPS and FedEx.
And, according to analysts, despite the increase in orders and deliveries—and challenging conditions—it’s unlikely U.S. consumers will see much in the way of disruptions beyond delays.
Leaning on ecommerce
According to Courtney Rogerson, director analyst at research firm Gartner, the bump in ecommerce is concentrated in sectors like grocery and healthcare because of both panic buying and consumers’ fear of going out in public, so they’re relying more on digital orders to fulfill their needs.
Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at research firm Forrester, agreed, noting orders are concentrated among a few sites because there are only so many platforms where consumers can order groceries and alcohol online. (She also said even more consumers are buying groceries offline, which has seen a huge lift, but it’s spread out over 100 brands and 100,000 different stores, so it doesn’t look quite as dramatic.)
The show must go on
Most retailers rely on carriers like FedEx, UPS and USPS. In a statement, a UPS spokesperson said the logistics company continues to operate globally except for locations under government restrictions. It has, however, extended some delivery times for services like next-day and second-day delivery.
UPS is also sharing hygiene protocols with its employees from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, and is encouraging social distancing in part by suspending the requirement for customer signatures upon delivery.
Similarly, FedEx is monitoring health agencies’ guidance and taking precautions, such as suspending requirements for most customer signatures, as well as disinfecting facilities and vehicles more frequently.
150 process changes and counting
Amazon has its own internal delivery infrastructure, but has not been immune to delays either. In its FAQs, the ecommerce platform now notes, “Delivery times may be longer than usual, and our selection of items available for international shipping may be temporarily reduced.” That’s true even for Prime members as the first anniversary of one-day shipping approaches.
In a statement, Amazon said it “has a unique role to play providing a critical service for customers to get the goods they need for their families without leaving their homes.” In recent weeks, the company has made “over 150 significant process changes,” including temperature checks for employees and distributing masks, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations noted in a blog post.
But couriers aren’t on a hiring spree
Staffing may be the clearest indicator of how couriers have been impacted by the pandemic.
Kodali pointed out the 100,000 temporary workers Amazon is hiring now is half of its reported hires for the 2019 holiday season.
“So just that alone gives you a sense of the magnitude of the lift they’re seeing now versus the holiday season,” she added. “Usually, you would hire more workers if you expect a ton of growth, and if you’re hiring fewer workers, that suggests… the growth over the next few months is probably not going to be the same volume as they thought it would be in Q4.”
She also noted that FedEx, UPS and USPS have not said anything about additional hires yet, which suggests they’re not necessarily seeing huge changes. UPS hired 100,000 seasonal employees in 2019.
“Our current hiring needs are relatively flat, with some areas of the country tighter than others,” the UPS spokesperson said. “But in general, we are only hiring where attrition is a factor—students graduating and moving on from our part-time positions or retirements in the full-time driving ranks.”
A spokesperson for FedEx said the delivery company has hired additional employees, but she did not specify how many—just that the greatest need was in Memphis and Indianapolis. She also said FedEx hired seasonal employees last year, but did not disclose figures.
It was not immediately clear how many seasonal hires USPS made, if any. (To be fair, Walmart is hiring 150,000 employees to work in its stores, as well as distribution and fulfillment centers.)
That being said, Kodali noted Amazon’s prioritization efforts indicate “everybody is buying the same low-margin items” instead of high-margin apparel and other more profitable products.
Retailers like Walmart and Target, on the other hand, are made for selling commodities—”they just put things on a pallet and drop it in the middle of the floor, and people buy it,” Kodali said.
Amazon, however, has a much higher cost of operation because it has to receive, fetch and deliver every item. And, when you’re talking about low-margin items, Kodali said there’s no doubt it’s harder for a company like Amazon to make money now.
Worst case scenario: Military will deliver
Of these couriers, Rogerson said USPS faces the toughest battle given its own economic restraints.
“Between the three, they’re the ones feeling it more,” she said. “But because it’s a government agency—the military could step in to continue with the delivery of essential goods.”
But, Rogerson added, if that were to happen, it would be “a whole other world of chaos and panic in society” and “it would have to be very bad.”
USPS did not respond to a request for comment and, as of Monday, has not made public statements about its coronavirus response beyond delaying or canceling stamp dedication ceremonies. (However, a recent statement from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform said the USPS could cease operations by June without government help.)
Given the contingency plans in place and the scope of these various networks, at least in the U.S., “it would take a huge, wide-scale [disruption]” for deliveries to stop, Rogerson said. “And even in those cases, the government would back them up for essential goods.”
Kodali, too, said it would take “a pretty extraordinary circumstance” for deliveries to stop.
“It’s why the government gave a bailout to airlines—it’s an essential service,” she said. As for FedEx, “a lot of their business is about managing medical shipments and dealing with getting the masks to hospitals—they’re dealing with essential services. … The whole point of the Castaway movie was they deliver no matter what.”