It's crunch time for delivery services like the United States Postal Service and Federal Express. The strike at United Parcel Service has meant more packages to handle and longer work hours. "It's a nightmare," says my local Fed Ex delivery man, as daily volumes approach Christmas proportions.
At least during Christmas, workers know the crush will end, he adds. No one knows when the UPS strike will be settled.
One bright spot in this picture is the performance of several behind-the-scenes technologies. (Customers say another is the Postal Service's Sunday parcel deliveries.) These aren't all shiny new and whiz-bang. Some of them are old. But together, they've kept the pipeline of packages from clogging up completely.
For example, when the UPS strike began, Federal Express was deluged by calls - 600,000 a day instead of the usual 380,000. The company coped without adding operators to its ranks. The secret? Intelligent call processing, which automatically routes calls to alternative call centers if the primary center is backed up.
Maybe Fed Ex should have added people, given the busy signals many customers have encountered. But the situation has pushed consumers to another technology - the Internet. The company's Web site (www.fedex.com) allows customers not only to track their packages and figure out the cost of delivery, it also lets users with a Fed Ex account schedule their shipment online and print out the label, complete with bar code. Traffic to that portion of Fed Ex's site has jumped 85 percent since the UPS strike began.
Technology is also helping the Postal Service deal with a 70 percent increase in overnight mail and 50 percent jump in Priority mail. For example, the Postal Service is mechanizing the sorting of parcels and small bundles. These packages are harder to sort automatically than letters, because they come in all sizes. Nevertheless, the Postal Service has installed 232 parcel and bundle sorters since 1988 and has just approved 46 more sorters, which should save in excess of $25 million a year when fully operational in 2000.