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January 6, 2014 4:00 AM, EST

Editorial: Unwelcome Shipping Surprises

This Editorial appears in the Jan. 6 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

For a few unlucky ones, a number of forces converged to put an unexpected wrinkle in Christmas this year.

As we report in this edition of Transport Topics, bad weather and a surge of online orders led to some late deliveries.

That is an unfortunate occurrence for any family expecting their gifts to arrive in time for the big day. It also represents a tiny percentage of the millions of on-time deliveries moved this holiday season by parcel firms.

It was not a major surprise how quickly some in the public — and national media — blamed UPS Inc. and FedEx Corp., in some cases going so far as suggesting they had “ruined Christmas.”

Of course, that is far from the truth, and the problems experienced this holiday season could lead to changes that will affect online shopping for years to come.

It does appear that UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service were all caught off-guard by the surge in online orders. Overall, online purchases increased more than 10% to $42.75 billion this year, ComScore Inc. reported.

The bad weather that hampered some deliveries also was cited as a factor in keeping more shoppers in front of their home computers rather than out at their local malls.

UPS acknowledged the volume exceeded its capacity and offered refunds to some customers.

However, as Satish Jindel, president of SJ Consulting Group, said, the main responsibility for late deliveries “lies squarely on the shoulders of online retailers.”

He and other industry analysts interviewed by TT said retailers were offering delivery guarantees even though ground service normally is not guaranteed during the peak holiday season.

Looking ahead, Jindel suggested parcel carriers should raise rates to move packages during peak shipping times, much like airlines and ocean carriers.

He also called on online retailers to help bear the higher costs if they promise last-minute discounts and guaranteed deliveries just before Christmas.

Industry analysts said they expect refinements in online shopping services by retailers, as well as a joint effort with carriers to better prepare for contingencies like bad weather.

We also hope that something else can come from the attention created by these delayed holiday deliveries — a greater appreciation of the job these drivers, sorters, dispatchers and other employees do every day of the year.

From other special events throughout the year to the ordinary everyday household purchase, many people are involved in what almost always is a seamless delivery process.

In the spirit of the holiday season just completed, that is something we all should remember to be thankful for all year long.