DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is crunch time for getting packages delivered in time for Christmas. And companies like FedEx and UPS and the Postal Service and even Amazon are really feeling the stress. Some have struggled in recent years to keep up with rising online holiday demands. This year, they have invested billions on new facilities, on vehicles and technologies to try to get better at delivering holiday packages on time. NPR's David Schaper has an inside look.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Long before you click buy and type in that shipping address, many e-retailers anticipated your order. And in some cases, that item you just bought is already sitting in a nearby warehouse or fulfillment center and could be delivered in a couple of hours. But most gifts are coming from a lot further away. And getting it delivered in time to be under the tree Christmas morning is complicated. Once the order goes through, the item goes by truck - and maybe by plane, too - to a shipping hub like this...
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SCHAPER: ...The massive new UPS Super Hub in Atlanta.
KIM KREBS: We are about the size of 19 football fields, 1.2 million square feet.
SCHAPER: That's right - 19 football fields. But UPS spokeswoman Kim Krebs says it's not just size that makes this hub super.
KREBS: It's the latest in operations technology powered by a lot of big data.
SCHAPER: Krebs says the heavily automated facility can process 100,000 packages an hour. That's about 1,700 packages a minute zipping through the facility's 18 miles of conveyor belts.
KREBS: If you look at how they're coming down and you look at the actual belts themselves, you'll see that there's different sizes and also different speeds.
SCHAPER: Smart labels on the packages are scanned so they can be moved to the right place to be reloaded onto a truck. UPS estimates it will deliver 800 million packages between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And company officials say this new super hub and billions in other facility upgrades and technological improvements should help prevent a repeat of problems UPS had last year, when some 3 million packages a day were delivered late. Even with increased automation, package delivery is still very labor intensive. UPS hired 100,000 extra workers to handle the holiday crush, and FedEx hired 55,000 seasonal workers as it doubles its usual 14-million-package-a-day volume.
It's still a couple of hours before dawn, and workers here at this FedEx distribution center near downtown Chicago are rolling giant metal containers off of semitrailers to be unloaded by workers who scan the packages and then place them onto one of two conveyor belts.
MICHAEL MURPHY: It's a ton of it. It's constantly moving.
SCHAPER: That's Michael Murphy, senior operations manager here. He says the e-commerce boom is quite noticeable, not only because customers are ordering so much more stuff online but it's also the kind of stuff they're having delivered.
MURPHY: It's a rug that you might need for that front room. It's the new 70-inch TV. I just saw a bed frame go down here a couple minutes ago. So it's something that we didn't see 10 years ago.
SCHAPER: Whether the boxes are big or small, there's a science to how they move down this conveyor belt. Couriers grab packages labeled for their routes and load them based on size and destination to make the most efficient use of truck space and the courier's time. When the 150 trucks are full, they launch almost all at once. But it's not chaos. It's more like a ballet than roller derby.
MURPHY: It's engineered. You know, it's not a big circus. It's extremely orchestrated and very, very - almost calm, the way that they launch.
SCHAPER: Engineers also design the delivery routes to keep trucks moving and not wasting time stuck in traffic. But there's no denying that all those delivery vans and trucks are choking traffic themselves and straining roadway infrastructure not really designed for this kind of commerce. The supply chain itself is not without kinks, as many packages still get lost, arrive late or left at the wrong address.
And increasingly, theft is a problem. It's estimated that millions of packages are stolen off of doorsteps and front porches. And consumers are not just ordering more items every year but demanding that they get them quicker. So every package that's delivered, whether it's on time or not, becomes a data point for e-retailers and their delivery partners as they try to improve for next year's holiday delivery rush.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
GREENE: And tomorrow, David is going to look at the real cost of e-retailers providing free delivery.
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