With just days to go before Christmas independent booksellers are adapting to persistent delays from UPS and FedEx in a number of regions across the country. Among the hardest-hit areas are pockets of the northeast, where improved shipping times still mean that orders are delayed by 1-2 days.
Delays peaked for Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass. last Tuesday, when no orders arrived. “We went three days with hardly anything coming through UPS,” buyer Dale Szczeblowski said. By late week, 100 cartons were arriving each day.
Szczeblowski hopes the store will be fully caught up on orders within a few days, but remains cautious. He stopped placing publisher orders on Tuesday and employees are setting expectations carefully with customers. “We’re not guaranteeing anything to anybody at this point,” Szczeblowski said.
At Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., owner Michael Herrmann has shifted almost entirely from publisher direct orders to buying from Ingram this time of year, and ran into substantial delays with FedEx. Those also have abated somewhat, but are still behind schedule. “This time of year we need as quick replenishment as we can get,” Herrmann said.
While he praised the efforts of shipping company drivers, publishers, and distributors who have been working to resolve the problem, Herrmann said the delays are a continued source of difficulty. “It’s just the whole system seems to be overloaded, and it’s hard to understand why.”
UPS has told customers that delays are largely due to poor weather at points throughout the month, but problems also may have been due to backlogs at local distribution hubs even without weather issues. Drivers near Boston told booksellers that at various points dozens of truckloads of boxes were at local warehouses, and suggested short staffing as part of the challenge in getting them to customers. Customers are not allowed to retrieve their items directly from warehouses.
UPS acknowledged some weather-based delays and also said the company has experienced record high volumes from e-commerce orders. In a statement, the company said staffing levels have been increased and defended the company's performance. “The vast majority of UPS packages are being delivered in accordance with the service level commitments made to our customers,” the company said. “Overall, the UPS network is performing well, as we manage a more than 60 percent increase over our normal daily volume between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Elsewhere across the country, entire areas do remain unaffected, especially in the northwest, according to Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association executive director Brian Juenemann. “We’re farthest from east coast [warehouses] but also lucky to have what we like to think of as our own dedicated Ingram warehouse, in Roseburg, Oregon,” Juenemann said. “Other than a few alerts or inquiries about individual titles with underestimated print runs or stock gaps, I have not received reports of widespread issues.”
Both Herrmann and Szczeblowski believe that by adapting to delays last week, they ensured that shortages haven’t substantially impacted overall holiday sales, but they expressed hope that this season’s issues will be addressed in the coming months to prevent future backlogs. Neither felt that individual stores have the ability to do it alone.
“I don’t know that we can do anything,” Szczeblowski said. “These are all shipments that are not being paid by us. But Random House is paying for two day service and they’re not getting it.”
Herrmann believes the American Booksellers Association may be able to help. “I think the ABA’s got to carry the ball on this because they’ve got the PartnerShip program with FedEx and they’ve got the collective clout,” he said. “I think [shippers] want to do a good job. That’s the leverage we need. We need to remind them that they’re the gold standard, and to get back to being it.”