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Delivery Services Struggle To Keep Up With Online Orders

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Year after year after year, more people buy more of their holiday gifts online. The crush of orders is stretching the shipping system and maybe leaving you in suspense right now. KCUR's Frank Morris reports on the logistical nightmare of getting your presents under the tree in time.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: All across the country right now, workers are hustling around warehouses, packing up orders and shipping them off.

KIETH MILBURN: The year's by far the best Christmas we've had.

MORRIS: Keith Milburn, founder of Innovative Fulfillment Solutions here in Kansas City, says his business has jumped 40 percent this year. Walking around the warehouse, he keeps apologizing for all the boxes strewn around the floor.

MILBURN: We would normally be very neat and orderly and all that. But now - you know, right now we're doing whatever it takes to be able to get the orders out. All hands on deck.

MORRIS: In fact, he's putting a 76-year-old guy in the front office to work packing up holiday gifts.

MILBURN: And that would be me. I do the business development for the company, and yet this afternoon, I'll be packing boxes.

MORRIS: Milburn's not alone. Mickey Mericle with Adobe Digital Insights says Americans are spending more than ever online this holiday season - about $1.7 billion.

MICKEY MERICLE: We're looking at a - almost a 14 percent year-over-year growth for the entire season.

MORRIS: And that growth is causing some problems. Earlier this month, UPS slipped behind schedule on some deliveries. Company spokesman Steve Gaut says UPS has moved hundreds of office workers from their desks to trucks and warehouses.

STEVE GAUT: And they go out and sort packages or load packages in the back of a truck. Or they go out as a driver helper to assist with delivering packages.

MORRIS: And those packages are getting harder to handle. FedEx spokesman Patrick Fitzgerald says on busy days this year, his company is moving twice as many boxes as it did on record days a decade ago.

PATRICK FITZGERALD: So the sheer number of packages is one factor, but then packages are getting bigger and heavier - things like mattresses and home gyms and trampolines and big screen TVs.

MORRIS: All this can be pretty bruising for drivers. Ralph Stubbs heads Teamsters Local 41 in Kansas City.

RALPH STUBBS: Right now, these drivers - we're seeing something that I've never seen. We just - we didn't see it coming.

MORRIS: Stubbs says thousands of UPS drivers are working more than 60 hours a week. And that tight shipping market presents opportunities for freelancers like Josh Hosseinmardi.

JOSH HOSSEINMARDI: Oh, I'm just delivering packages for Amazon Flex right now, and I love it. I've been doing it for two months.

MORRIS: Amazon Flex is a lot like Uber for deliveries. Amazon gives drivers an app that guides them through a route.

So what kind of delivery truck you got here?

HOSSEINMARDI: Oh, it's a 2002 Honda Accord, EX, top of the line - leather seats, sunroof, you know, about 200,000 miles on it.

MORRIS: And it is packed with Amazon boxes.

HOSSEINMARDI: It sure is.

MORRIS: Driving around neighborhoods in a car stuffed with Amazon boxes does have a few drawbacks. Since Hosseinmardi isn't wearing a uniform or driving a branded delivery truck, he's been accused of stealing packages off porches - a crime getting lots of attention these days as record deliveries leave lots of packages on doorsteps this holiday season. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say online shopping will total an estimated $1.7 billion this holiday season. In fact, the estimate is $107 billion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 22, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
We incorrectly say online shopping will total an estimated $1.7 billion this holiday season. In fact, the estimate is $107 billion.