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A holiday glut of packages prompts a shipping crisis for small businesses

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Mail carriers load up their trucks at a USPS distribution center in El Paso, Texas, earlier this year.

Mail carriers load up their trucks at a USPS distribution center in El Paso, Texas, earlier this year. Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

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It has been a busy year for online shopping — so busy that the country’s delivery infrastructure has been overwhelmed.

There are shortages of drivers, warehouse space is scarce, and backlogs at the U.S. Postal Service have made it harder for retailers to get goods to customers on time. We spoke to a couple of retailers to see how they’re handling the situation.

Ever since the pandemic started, Tom Butcher has been refocusing his Seattle-based synthesizer store, Patchwerks, on e-commerce.

He’s advertising more and building up the store’s website.

“We’re spending a lot more money on supplies: boxes and tape,” Butcher said. “It’s amazing how much tape we go through, honestly.”

Lately, the company’s been fielding a lot more questions from customers asking about their packages. And it’s been harder to tell them when their order will arrive.

“The logistics systems are really overtaxed,” said Dale Rogers, a professor of supply chain management at Arizona State University. He said in addition to a glut of Christmas packages, shippers are also trying to deliver COVID-19 vaccines. Which means retailers are competing for whatever warehouse and trucking capacity is left.

“And if you’re a small guy, you don’t necessarily get priority,” Rogers said.

Back in May, Sarah Piepenburg’s trucking carrier told her it could no longer work with her Minneapolis olive oil and vinegar store, Vinaigrette. The replacement she found was a lot more expensive. So, “we have to charge $20 for shipping,” she said. “Which we just raised our prices, by the way.”

Customers have complained, which is hardly ideal at the most crucial time of year for the store.

Piepenburg said she’s been too scared to estimate how sales have been going. “It’s a third of our entire revenue for the year,” she said. “It’s made in six weeks.”

Piepenburg has even offered some customers free shipping by delivering their packages herself.

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