USPS Delivery Vehicle

Throughout this week, postings in various seller and small business merchants Facebook groups about systemwide delays with domestic USPS shipments have exploded.

In an eBay seller group this week, one seller voiced their frustration by posting, “So USPS Priority Mail packages will take at least 3 weeks to deliver! Everyday I receive complaints and open case items not receive from buyers, I can’t take this anymore!!!”

The responses to this post shows how frustrated sellers are about this problem:

  • “Almost thinking of putting EBay Store on vacation and come back later in January”
  • “I put mine on vacation yesterday until December 24th. I don’t want to deal with refunds that aren’t my fault and for products still in the pipeline.”
  • “I have stopped listing items that would make great Christmas presents as I’m afraid they won’t arrive in time.”

In another posting from a seller looking for advice, “A few of my packages with tracking have been stuck at a location and not moved in a while…. has this happened to anyone? What could I do now?, a seller responded succinctly with the statement that seems to define the situation best right now, “We all are having USPS delays.”

The worst part is that by reading through many of the threads in these groups, the problem is widespread and very random. One seller noted, “I had a first class package make it to Hawaii from South Carolina in about 4 days and a priority Package made it to Alaska in about the same time. But, closer destinations are still pending delivery since the end of November.”

While these quotes are all from an eBay seller group, the issue impacts sellers on other platforms such as Etsy, Shopify, BigCommerce that ship with USPS. This even includes sellers on Amazon that do not ship from an Amazon warehouse but fulfill their own orders.

Why Is This Happening With The U.S. Postal Service?

The simple answer is that more people are shopping online this season than ever before due COVID health and safety concerns and it is overloading all shipping networks, including UPS and FedEx. But the actual answer is more complicated.

Besides the questions about the USPS logistics network brought up leading into the November election, the U.S. Postal Service is more reliant on other vendors to transport mail between sorting facilities.

Much of the nation’s mail is transported by FedEx and commercial airlines as the U.S. Postal Service does not own its own airlift capacity. Even medium-distance ground transportation is often contracted out.

To make any holiday season work, the U.S. Postal Service has to secure enough capacity from transportation partners to handle the expected rush in mail volume. But when those partners have their own issues, it makes the situation extremely difficult.

FedEx planes are full with no excess capacity available for them to handle more USPS shipments. Commercial airlines significantly slashed flights heading into the holiday season due to expected low passenger demand, reducing air cargo capacity for the entire logistics industry. And a trucker shortage means the USPS’ contract partners can’t scale up to transport more mail.

Finally, there is a shortage of workers in the system to handle this rush. USPS added an alert to its website “ALERT: USPS IS EXPERIENCING UNPRECEDENTED PACKAGE INCREASES AND LIMITED EMPLOYEE AVAILABILITY DUE TO THE IMPACTS OF COVID-19. WE APPRECIATE YOUR PATIENCE AND REMAIN COMMITTED TO DELIVERING THE HOLIDAYS TO YOU.”

All of this leads to the problem sellers and buyers are noticing when tracking orders, parcels are stuck in one location for days. The packages sit in hubs waiting to be processed and transported, and there is no indicator in USPS tracking if mail is loaded for transport.

While there have been improvements in the U.S. Postal Service tracking, it still lacks some details UPS and FedEx tracking offers. More importantly, USPS phone customer service agents can only see the same tracking information that is publically available. At best, they can start a trace, but that process can take some time and is only worthwhile if a shipper needs to file an insurance claim.

UPS and FedEx agents appear to have access to non-public “scan events,” which sometimes may provide additional information about the status of a shipment. In addition, they also can contact local centers to request help to find packages, and internally the two carriers have better communication about systemic network problems.

What Can a Seller Do?

The suggestions here fall into two categories, orders that have shipped and new orders.

Shipped Orders

If a package is already in the USPS system, as of today (December 11) the chances it will arrive before December 25 is still pretty good. While there are some complaints about really long delays, it seems most shipments arrive within 10 days.

All a seller can do now is try to communicate calmly with buyers and keep communicating, even with buyers that send irate messages. Sellers may want to pre-write a calm script stating that they are aware of this situation and will continue to monitor the tracking and continue to stay in touch. By having a script, sellers can avoid an emotional response because a buyer’s message may have been strongly worded.

Regardless of how bad a situation may seem, by putting a human face in the communication, the goal is to try to disarm hostile messages or actions from buyers. If buyers feel they are being neglected, they are more likely to file claims of non-delivery with marketplaces; or with sellers operating an online store, file a dispute with their credit card company.

For sellers on marketplaces such as eBay and Etsy, it is important to keep all communication through the marketplace platform, not directly by email. That is normally a marketplace requirement anyway. If a dispute resolution started through the marketplace, any messages about the order can only be considered by a customer service agent if they occurred on the marketplace messaging system. By communicating and documenting all messages, sellers can protect seller performance ratings on marketplaces.

If a seller receives negative feedback or a strike on their performance rating on the marketplace, the seller should follow up with the marketplace customer service department to have it removed. eBay already knows there are problems with USPS and while they claim they will “automatically” protect seller performance ratings, it is still wise to monitor and follow up. Other marketplaces are likely to work with sellers as well on USPS issues and the same advice applies.

New Orders

If financially feasible, sellers should consider “upgrading” orders to ship with UPS or FedEx versus USPS. Of course, sellers need to make sure the address is not a postal only address such as a PO Box or a rural route addresses. Also, it would be a good idea to inform buyers that the order is being upgraded to UPS or FedEx because of current USPS chronic delivery delays to avoid buyer confusion.

Obviously, for many sellers, free upgrades are not an option, especially with low-priced items that include free shipping. In that case, it is wise to inform the buyer before shipping of the potential delays with USPS and provide an opportunity to cancel the order or upgrade the shipping at the buyer’s expense to a more reliable carrier. It’s important to avoid making this communication appear like an “upsell,” that’s why sellers should also offer the cancel option.

Especially for sellers on marketplaces like eBay and Etsy where they have no control over the estimated shipping times being displayed by the marketplace, sellers should inform buyers that the delivery estimates shown in listings are currently not realistic. Explain why and how this is out of a seller’s control.

For all sellers – regardless if a marketplace seller or selling on their own web store – anything that a seller can do to be transparent about USPS issues before the order is placed or ships will reduce problems. Sometimes it might be better to accept a cancellation or not get the order than deal with the issue afterward.

A Few Don’t Dos

Padding handling times to account for delays is not a good idea. Once the tracking number has been sent to the buyer, the “on-time” delivery expectation will rise. Buyers are going to become frustrated when the shipment doesn’t move for days, and that seems to be the norm too frequently right now.

Upgrading from First Class Mail to USPS Priority Mail is not a solution either. Contrary to what some people believe, the U.S. Postal Service never guarantees delivery times on standard USPS Priority Mail and delays are impacting all mail services. Only USPS Priority Express Mail is a guaranteed delivery service, but it comes at a steep cost.

If a potential buyer asks if an order will arrive before Christmas, promise nothing right now or even hint that it likely, even if the buyer is only a few hundred miles away.

A Few Things To Consider

As bad as it may sound, removing inventory that normally ships First Class Mail may be a good option for now. The situation is not likely to get much better until January, as it will take time to clear the backlog, and after Christmas returns will flood logistics networks again.

If possible, add UPS or FedEx as a paid shipping service option to listings or web stores. Add language to the listing or the store explaining issues with the standard delivery option of USPS and recommend paying for one of the courier services to ensure delivery by Christmas.

Monitor the nation’s weather. A big snowstorm will just make this situation worse, and storms may affect shipments between locations that are not directly in the path of a storm. AccuWeather is warning of a potential big snowstorm coming next week already.

In Conclusion

This is a challenging situation with USPS, and there are no perfect solutions. For some sellers, the holiday season may end this weekend because they don’t want to deal with the USPS problems any longer.

Buyers will be frustrated and some won’t understand and will blame sellers, but never take it personally. There is nothing sellers can do about the situation at the postal service.

Some buyers may rightfully claim that shipments from an Amazon order arrived on time. The difference is that Amazon’s shipments are moved by Amazon and are turned over to USPS the final destination. With USPS now acknowledging a staffing issue, this may change as well in some locations.

Certainly, the systemic issues that have plagued the postal service for years are becoming even more apparent this year. Even if USPS gets a financial boost in a new COVID relief package, it will not be an immediate fix to the problems at the postal service. Hopefully, by the next holiday season, the U.S. Postal Service will be in better shape to handle the rush. It’s clearly failing many micro and small business owners right now.

And finally, this is not the fault of U.S. Postal Service workers, many who are putting in hours and hours of overtime trying to manage this unprecedented surge in volume and lack of transportation capacity.

Note: Updated December 13 to add USPS Alert and snowstorm forecast for Northeast US.

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