UPS seeks a cheerier holiday season

Kelley Castleberry, a stay-at home mom in Sugar Hill, is running some unusual holiday errands this year.

She is joining her husband Scott, a UPS driver, in his big brown truck after signing on as one of the company’s more than 90,000 seasonal workers this holiday season.

“There’s a lot involved. It’s not just driving around and delivering packages,” Castleberry said. “A lot of it is customer service — you have to be really friendly with customers. You meet a lot of people every day.”

More than usual is at stake for Sandy Springs-based UPS this year. The company wants to redeem its reputation after fumbling holiday deliveries last year, leaving a trail of upset customers.

Too many online shoppers placed orders just a few days before Christmas, and there were too many packages for the company’s network to handle at crunch time. Some shipments were delayed and thousands of customers got packages late, turning UPS into the Grinch in the eyes of some.

Even more orders are expected to stream in this time around.

UPS has spent the entire year planning a path to recovery. The company is ramping up capacity, improving its technology and prodding retailers to offer promotions earlier in the shopping season to reduce the number of last-minute orders.

It’s warned online sellers it might charge them more to fulfill 11th-hour orders, too, such as in special circumstances if it receives an order that requires extra capacity, for example.

“We have the capability if warranted to put on a peak season surcharge,” UPS chief commercial officer Alan Gershenhorn said. Retailers would have to decide whether to pass the extra cost onto customers.

Castleberry is one soldier in an army of tens of thousands of temporary workers and hundreds of thousands of UPS employees who aim to deliver the holidays on time.

“It’s very fast, it’s a physical job,” Castleberry said. “It makes you feel really good knowing that you’re helping people to get the things that they’ve ordered and helping to get things delivered on time.”

She typically works 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. picking up and delivering packages and getting signatures, and gets off in time to pick up her daughter from school while earning extra money. The average UPS driver makes 120 stops in a single shift.

Record forecast

UPS forecasts it will handle a record 585 million packages this December amid the peak holiday season, up 11 percent from last year.

That reflects steady growth in online shopping that is transforming retail and shipping.

“Historically, we’ve seen the peak season was 40 percent, 45 percent higher than average base levels,” said UPS chief financial officer Kurt Kuehn. “Last year it was 60 percent higher. Those spikes create a whole different equation…. Last year was an exclamation point. That’s why it has been all hands on deck to generate extra capacity.”

Archrival FedEx said it expects to handle 290 million shipments between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, up 8.8 percent from last year.

UPS expects its peak day to be Monday Dec. 22, with more than 34 million packages delivered — twice the number of a typical day.

“There will be consumers who procrastinate,” Kuehn said. The company has set up what it calls a “control tower” of executives who can quickly decide to divert resources as necessary to handle unexpected changes.

Management at the Sandy Springs-based shipping giant is not taking the task lightly, investing $500 million to prepare for the holiday shipping season and expand its operations going forward.

The 90,000 to 95,000 seasonal workers hired nationwide is nearly double the original plan for 55,000 hired in 2013, though UPS ended up boosting that to 85,000 by the time the season ended. The positions, including package sorters, loaders, delivery helpers and drivers, ramp up in October and November with the company taking job applications on

Most are part-time jobs that start at $10 per hour, UPS said, but the company says the seasonal positions are “often an entry point to long-term UPS employment.”

That’s how Robert Carr looked at his seasonal job with UPS. Carr, 23, signed on as a temporary worker last year while looking for a job after graduating from college.

‘Fast-paced’ work

Carr experienced the full impact of the rush of packages last year. He said he not only helped his driver, but stayed later to help other drivers who still had packages left to deliver at the end of the day.

“It was fast-paced for sure,” Carr said. “The way I looked at it — we had this truck full of packages, and it was my job to get them delivered, so that’s what we did.” This year, Carr is doing an internship with UPS and helping to hire seasonal workers in Roswell.

UPS said syetem improvements include additional shifts and operating days, including nearly 50 new package sorting shifts in its hubs and full operations on the day after Thanksgiving.

It is also adding facilities, such as a new mobile distribution facility in Roswell, and expanding existing centers such as those at its Fulton Industrial Boulevard and Pleasantdale Road buildings.

It’s also adding thousands of delivery bays to increase capacity. UPS said it has improved its scheduling and shipment tracking technology.

FedEx, which like UPS received complaints about late shipments last year, has also increased its capacity this year, improved its technology and is hiring more than 50,000 seasonal workers.

Delivering packages on time is rewarding, Carr said.

He said for some deliveries, people are “looking out the window and they see you pull up, and they’re kind of waiting at the door, and you see the smile on their face.”

“We’ve all been making a concerted effort to get the job done and make sure we represent UPS in the way we should.”