Bad weather and heavy shipping volume appear to have snarled UPS deliveries to independent bookstores, causing widespread delays with less than two weeks until Christmas. Across the country, booksellers described mounting frustration with late deliveries this week as split and unfulfilled orders caused confusion and concern.
Porter Square Books in Somerville, Mass., received few of its deliveries on Tuesday, leaving its receiving area completely empty, according to manager Josh Cook. At nearby Silver Unicorn Books in Acton, Mass., owner Paul Swydan had not experienced any delays until Saturday, when shipments stopped arriving consistently.
Like at Porter Square, delays peaked on Tuesday, when Swydan’s order from Ingram did not arrive. Swydan expressed frustration because his order was confirmed and UPS did not note any delays. “My order had 48 special customer orders on it. [It’s] very disappointing when they make me a liar,” he said.
At Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., Vivien Jennings and her staff are telling customers to expect longer wait times for special orders. "The shipping is already erratic, with missing or delayed boxes almost every day, and the damage rate, which was already too high, will not only continue but probably increase due to the tendency to work with speed instead of accuracy with the holiday volume," Jennings said. "The system is overloaded," she added. "Our [UPS] driver cares but he says that upstream, the people who are processing and loading are untrained, because UPS is hiring new people to deal with the overload but they are focusing on speed instead of accuracy. That's the problem."
Orders were arriving piecemeal at Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif., where owner Michael Barnard received only two boxes in a shipment of thirteen boxes from Random House on Tuesday. Barnard emphasized that he did not hold publishers responsible for the delays. “I truly believe that up and down the food chain everybody is doing the right thing,” Barnard said.
In recent weeks, Barnard received warnings from publishers about potential delays due to weather, as did other booksellers who spoke to PW. “Any single day that gets held up has a ripple effect,” Barnard said. “But I don’t think there is a publisher out there who doesn’t know that books are better on my shelves than in their warehouse or on a truck.” With the absence of a bestseller like Michelle Obama’s Becoming last year, Barnard said, the store has been able to recommend a variety of books to customers, making it easier to adapt to the delays despite the challenges of receiving shipments that arrive in stages.
Likewise, at Greenlight Bookstores in Brooklyn, N.Y., co-owner Rebecca Fitting was spreading out orders between publishers, Ingram, and Bookazine to ensure a broad array of titles hit the sales floor on time. Fitting said that the approach was helping, especially turning to Bookazine. “We’re relying heavily on Bookazine this season,” Fitting said. “We’ve always used them, but we’re going to them more than in years past, and so far, their fill rate has been pretty great.”
Shawn Everson, Ingram’s chief commercial officer, said “Ingram is having a strong holiday season with booksellers. As a result of growth in internet sales throughout retail, some carriers, in some areas of the country, are experiencing challenges related to volume. Ingram has changed carriers where necessary and is working hard with booksellers to make sure that books arrive on time." He added: "Our advice to our customers is to order as quickly as possible. We have two weeks to go in the season and the earlier the orders come in the less likely the supply chain will be battling congestion due to a strong holiday season in all channels of distribution.”
While some booksellers pointed to Amazon as the cause of delays, it was unclear whether the company was relying on UPS or its own shipping infrastructure this holiday season. Fitting echoed Barnard and others who spoke with PW in saying, “I do think UPS is having a bad season. Ingram’s decision to switch Chambersburg shipments to FedEx was notable. I wish more publishers would either explore, or use the threat of, switching to FedEx as leverage with UPS to improve service." She added: "Publishers are paying for not great service. FedEx, in my opinion, has a major opportunity here.”
For Jennings at Rainy Day Books, the delays are a sign of a broader issue in retail culture. "No matter how someone wants to spin it," she said, "the cost of convenience is very, very high."