COVID-19 has sped up e-commerce adoption across all industries as many businesses emerge from the global pandemic battered and bruised. At the end of 2019, e-commerce represented 11.3 percent of total U.S. retail sales. This percentage inched up to 11.8 percent at the end of the first quarter of this year. For the second-quarter, some estimates suggest this percentage could double, at minimum, as businesses closed, and consumers stayed home because of COVID-19.
Indeed, while increased online sales is not a new phenomenon, the speed with which new generations of customers have gone online is and has led to a change in demand that is unlikely to reverse quickly according to McKinsey & Company’s latest COVID-19 Briefing Materials: Global Health and Crisis Response (June 1, 2020). McKinsey estimates that 20-60 percent more U.S. consumers are digital as a result of COVID-19. Stickiness of digital, localization, and selectiveness in spending are major trends that businesses will need to address as the pandemic alters the way business is conducted.
McKinsey also found that consumers are shopping online more and are more willing to switch across brands. This can be seen in one the biggest “winners:” groceries. According to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index, online groceries grew 110 percent in daily sales between March and April. However, there were delays in last-mile deliveries as companies including Amazon, Walmart and Instacart had to hire more workers to assist with the increased consumer demand.
In March, Amazon had to restrict non-essential shipments from third-party sellers and other retail vendors and focus on receipt, restocking and delivery of essential products that were most in demand. Meanwhile, Walmart touted not only its online store capabilities but also curbside pickup. The result was a strong first-quarter earnings for the period ending April 30 with comparable-store sales up 10 percent and e-commerce sales up 74 percent. Strongest sales were in food, consumables, health, and wellness.
Retailer Target also noted strong first-quarter sales. While comparable-store sales increased only 0.9 percent in its first-quarter ending April 30, e-commerce sales jumped 141 percent with 80 percent of e-commerce orders fulfilled in Target’s stores. Food and beverages rose over 20 percent, essential and beauty 10 percent, and home rose in the single digits.
As more workers work from home, electronics and furniture sales also increased. Best Buy noted in the eight days ending March 20, sales jumped 25 percent as customers purchased work-from-home-related items. As stores closed, online sales increased more than 250 percent, with half of those orders using curbside service available at most Best Buy stores.
For small parcel carriers including FedEx and UPS, the e-commerce volumes proved to be a boon. Both carriers have been preparing for rising e-commerce volumes by introducing such service offerings as seven-day deliveries, faster delivery times, later pick-up times, returns solutions, fulfillment solutions designed for e-retailers, alternative delivery pick-up and drop off locations and more. By all accounts, FedEx and UPS appeared prepared to handle the sudden e-commerce volume increases.
Just as the COVID-19 impact was being felt in the U.S., UPS noted in its first-quarter earnings that March volumes were 70 percent business-to-consumer (B2C) with April trending similar. FedEx also noted a similar trend with higher than usual B2C volumes.
The result was a sharp increase in residential volumes for both carriers and delays occurred. It should be noted that residential deliveries are typically more costly for FedEx and UPS versus business-to-business moves in which batches of parcels can be picked up and delivered at once.
A number of consumers took to social media to voice their frustrations and share photos of overflowing packages at carriers’ facilities. However, not only were carriers faced with higher than normal volumes, but they were also dealing with the coronavirus itself, affecting an unknown number of FedEx and UPS employees who would otherwise be sorting packages, loading and unloading delivery vehicles and delivering packages. Networks slowed as a result.
Having temporarily suspended all service guarantees and implemented international peak surcharges in March to handle a surge in international volumes, FedEx and UPS introduced new temporary peak surcharges to address the U.S. domestic situation.
UPS’s latest surcharges took effect on May 31 and addressed Residential, SurePost, and Large Parcels. Meanwhile, FedEx’s domestic temporary peak surcharges took effect on June 8 and addressed Residential for FedEx Ground and FedEx Express parcels, SmartPost, and Oversize Parcels for FedEx Ground and FedEx Express parcels. Keep in mind, these temporary peak surcharges are in addition to already existing surcharges and individual shipper’s contracted rates.
Besides surcharges, FedEx also capped some shippers’ volumes. This is a similar approach to what the carrier does during the holiday season if a shipper exceeds agreed-upon volume commitments. However, this is not the traditional holiday season and many shippers were caught off guard by this tactic. UPS also took a page out of their holiday season playbook and dispersed managers and supervisors across the U.S. to pitch in and help at sorting facilities and deliver parcels.
The rapid increase in e-commerce parcels seemed to catch FedEx and UPS off-guard and significantly impact their lower margin service, Residential. Moving beyond the COVID-19 crisis, e-commerce will play a bigger role in B2C as well as B2B. Businesses will utilize a number of creative ways to handle the last mile – curbside pickup, buy online, pickup in-store, residential, third party locations for pickup and delivery, and more. FedEx and UPS will need to work closely with customers to share capacity availability and concerns.
John Haber is the founder and CEO of Spend Management Experts. With more than 25 years of supply-chain experience, John has helped some of the world’s leading brands drive greater efficiencies through their supply-chain operations while reducing transportation, distribution and fulfillment costs. He began his career at UPS, where he held various executive level positions in corporate finance and corporate strategy and was instrumental in developing profitability and costing models. He also managed the carrier’s National Accounts Profitability Group where he audited the pricing and profitability of UPS’ top customers. John’s finance background combined with decades of experience working with high-volume shippers enables him to offer unique insights on strategic supply chain planning, including distribution model optimization, transportation cost analysis and carrier contract optimization and compliance.