Saturday, July 11, 2015

Is the Postal Service Primed for Amazon Prime Day?

Next Wednesday is Amazon Prime Day, a huge promotion that one postal expert predicts will overwhelm the U.S. Postal Service.

Amazon is celebrating its 20th anniversary on July 15 with a one-day online shopping event that will offer “more deals than Black Friday” to members of Amazon Prime, including those who sign up for a free 30-day trial membership.

“It will be interesting to see how USPS handles what is sure to be a major onslaught of Amazon package deliveries, with Amazon Prime two day shipping after the one day sale,” writes Lisa Bowes of Intelisent, a company that advises direct mailers. “Will Prime Day impact delivery for other classes of mail? My guess is – probably so…”

A look at the numbers indicates she is correct – that the Postal Service will struggle to handle the surge of Amazon packages without hurting delivery of other types of mail, even with massive overtime.

In a filing this week with the Postal Regulatory Commission, Amazon said it had 15 sortation centers at the end of 2014, with more on the way, that each prepare “tens of thousands” of packages per day to be handed off to the USPS for final delivery. That indicates that USPS delivers several hundred thousand “Parcel Select” packages to Amazon customers on a typical day. 

The e-commerce giant uses a variety of package-delivery services, but clearly the Postal Service is the favorite because of its ability to deliver to residential customers seven days a week at relatively low cost. Amazon has built an extensive logistics network that bypasses most of the Postal Service’s own network and delivers packages early every morning directly to the USPS’s destination delivery units (DDUs), where letter carriers pick up mail to be delivered later that day.

Membership: 30 million-plus and growing
An RBC Capital analyst estimated 10 months ago that Amazon had 30 to 40 million Prime members in the U.S. The numbers have probably been growing since then, and Prime Day seems likely to boost the membership roster.

Suppose that about 20% of existing U.S. Prime members take advantage of Prime Day and are joined by another 5 million who get a trial membership to take advantage of the deals. And suppose each Prime Day participant orders an average of two items, with half of them destined for “last-mile delivery” by the Postal Service.

That would mean letter carriers would handle 12 million packages, roughly 20 times their normal Amazon volume and more than double their normal daily volume for all Parcel Select packages. (That 12 million number is what we statistical experts call a SWAG, a Sophisticated Wild-Ass Guess. The actual numbers may be much higher or much lower, but with some reasonable – to me – assumptions, you can get a ballpark ideal of how Prime Day might affect postal operations.)

Amazon will have its own logistical challenges but also has opportunities to ease the pain. If the items likely to be hot sellers are spread throughout its network of distribution centers, it can probably hand off many of them to the Postal Service on Thursday, the day after Prime Day, rather than hitting the agency with one big wave on Friday the 17th.

It can also pull other levers, such as making exceptions to the two-day guarantee for certain items, especially those ordered late on Prime Day. And it can highlight deals on digital downloads (e.g. movies, music, e-books) instead of those requiring physical delivery.

The Postal Service has limited ability to handle a huge one-day surge, especially at what is usually a slow time of year when many career employees are on vacation and there are fewer temporary and part-time workers than during the Christmas rush.

Amazon Prime Day and its aftermath may be a challenging test of the Postal Service’s efforts to play in the e-commerce big leagues while still providing traditional mail delivery.

Related articles: