This week marks the busiest time of the year for shipping services like UPS, FedEx and the Postal Service. The post office handled 600 million cards and letters alone on Tuesday, and UPS says it is delivering 300 packages per second, on average.
At one FedEx facility in Washington, D.C., the logistics of last-minute shipping are on full display.
Packages that traveled by plane overnight arrive on freight trucks before dawn. Workers shuffle and sift them at a rate of 166 per minute, as conveyor belts that look something like small highways carry them through the large warehouse.
"You see a lot of those bags that come [from] either Old Navy or even Amazon," says Paul Meilinger, the station manager. "People ordering outfits, clothes — we've had times where Christmas trees will come through here."
Meilinger's biggest worry, he says, is snowstorms and delivery trucks stuck in traffic; FedEx relies on its own meteorologists in that regard.
He says it also uses technologies that didn't exist when he started many years ago. Back then, they'd use crayons to indicate on the box where it should go — now they use labels that tell workers exactly where each package is headed, he says.
"It's routed by identifier. We've got belts. Years ago it [was] rollers, and we'd push 'em," he says. "So a lot has changed. And certainly if we didn't have this type of equipment, there'd be no way we could handle this amount of freight."
There are also suitcases shipped by travelers avoiding baggage fees.
Many, if not most, of the packages streaming by bear the names of online brands. Online shopping made a big mark on FedEx's business this year. More online retailers are offering later-guaranteed arrivals than ever, even for orders placed Friday evening. It's a procrastinator's paradise.
'I Feel Like Santa Claus'
But it does up the ante for drivers like Daryl Anderson. Standing toward the tail end of the conveyor belt, he's picking off packages bound for his delivery area.
Anderson scans the items using a hand-held scanner, then arranges them in his truck in the order he plans to deliver them, from back to front. He's wearing a purple hat with a FedEx logo and a pompom — a corporate twist on a North Pole classic.
"I feel like Santa Claus," Anderson says with a chuckle.
He's adapted to managing the crush of packages: Use your legs, not your back. He's also developed a photographic memory, but only as it applies to addresses.
"It's a funny thing — sometimes you dream addresses," he says. "It's like you already know which packages you have, and somehow if you skip over that package, you'd be like, 'Hold up, I know I have this package.' It's just funny how in this business, you're pretty much programmed."
Just after daybreak, two hours after sorting began, a few leftover packages amble down the belts. Anderson and the other drivers prepare to take off.
Meilinger, the station manager, takes stock of the scene with a satisfied nod. His workday starts at 4 a.m. and ends 14 hours later. If last-minute shipping makes his job more hectic, he admits, he's part of the problem.
"People like me, they keep waiting. 'Oh, it's Friday, I still got one more day. I can still get it there for Christmas!' " he says.
He's still not done with his Christmas shopping — in fact, he says he hasn't even started yet. But when he does do so, he'll go with FedEx, naturally. "Absolutely. That's the only way it's going to get there. I don't trust anybody else," he says.
Meanwhile, Anderson's truck approaches capacity, and he lowers the door with a rattle. And with that, this Santa has left the station.
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