ROSWELL, Ga. - UPS, FedEx and other delivery companies will be getting help from millions of customers this holiday season.
Using the Internet, many holiday shoppers will take part in the shipping process, pointing and clicking to create their own shipping labels, or, if they're ordering online, supplying information that makes it easier for packages to be sent worldwide.
As a result, UPS needs to hire only 50,000 seasonal workers, the same as last year, despite a shorter-than-usual holiday shipping season and projections that it will deliver 1 million more packages on its peak day than last year. FedEx, too, is using technology to ease the flow of holiday packages.
"The Internet has changed the way we all operate," said Mark Hopkins, a vice president in UPS' package process management division. "Over the last five years, we've had a significant increase in package level detail that we receive electronically. It lowers our overall costs because we can automate many of our processes internally."
Atlanta-based UPS says the majority of its packages this holiday season will come in already labeled with key information such as sender, destination, weight and the level of service - for example, next-day air or ground delivery.
UPS uses the information to sort and route the packages - even telling truck drivers exactly where a package should be loaded onto a delivery vehicle. That information is also downloaded to the drivers' electronic clipboards, which guide them through the delivery process.
"In the old world, we'd bring in a new hire and they'd have to learn street addresses of where the package is going to and where they would sort it in the building or which vehicle it needs to be loaded on," Mr. Hopkins said. "This online technology is allowing us to leverage that flow of information to break through the knowledge barrier ... to allow them to do their jobs more efficiently."
The company expects to deliver 20 million packages on its peak holiday delivery day, Dec. 18.
Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx expects to hire several thousand seasonal workers over the holidays to help process ground shipments, about the same number as last year. Like UPS, FedEx is seeing an increase in online shipping activity this holiday season, spokeswoman Traci Barnett said.
"Customers right now go to FedEx.com, and 2 million customers a day track packages on it; they can get e-mail notifications of the status of packages and even track it on their PDAs and wireless devices," Ms. Barnett said. "We're using technology for internal efficiency as well."
Online retailers say they are seeing a surge in business this holiday season, especially among customers who decide to have packages sent directly to recipients. Customers can also take advantage of shipping discounts some online retailers are offering. Amazon.com, for instance, offers free shipping on holiday gifts over $25 bought through the site, with some restrictions. Items shipped online also can be gift-wrapped.
"We're past the point where people are testing online to see if it is safe and reliable," said Chris Bruzzo, a spokesman for Amazon.com. "We're at the point where people are adding the types of categories of things they are willing to buy online."
In the fourth quarter, which includes the Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday season, the company expects net sales to increase 23 percent to 34 percent compared with the same period a year ago, and most of that business will come from online purchases and shipping, Mr. Bruzzo said.
As UPS delivered a package of sticky buns to Elizabeth Rohan's Roswell home, she said she often receives gifts shipped to her online.
"We got a lot of wedding gifts shipped to us last year and now we're getting some baby shower items as well," said Ms. Rohan, who is due to have a baby in March.
The items were shipped from online retailers including BabiesRUs.com and Amazon.com. Ms. Rohan cited the efficiency of sending and receiving holiday items online.
"Things get here pretty quickly," she said.
"This online technology is allowing us to leverage that flow of information to break through the knowledge barrier ... to allow them to do their jobs more efficiently." - Mark Hopkins, a vice president in UPS' package process management division