Skip to content

Brace for Holiday ‘Shipageddon’

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

Online shopping has exploded during the pandemic. The holidays are approaching. What happens when these two forces collide?

The combination of our reliance on online shopping during a pandemic and our eagerness for online shopping during the holidays has made some e-commerce experts predict a “shipageddon” in the United States — delays and chaos as parcel companies already stretched thin also tackle a surge in holiday packages.

Retailers are sweating over how they’re going to move merchandise among their stores and handle extra expenses to deliver orders. And people who rely on home delivery might need to plan ahead for possible bottlenecks.

The potential for hiccups shows the complications when our zeal for shopping from home meets the physical limits of humans, warehouses stuffed to the rafters, roadways and ocean freight shipping. There’s always been a war to get stuff to our door. It’s just been one we usually ignore.

The problem is simple: Many of our buying habits completely changed in the pandemic, and our delivery networks cannot keep up. You might already have encountered this with weekslong delays on some Amazon orders or waking up at 4 a.m. to get an open slot from a grocery delivery company.

Parcel companies like FedEx and UPS already struggle to handle extra orders each holiday season, and they’re expecting Christmas 2020 to stretch them to the limits. To try to discourage deliveries they can’t handle, the delivery companies have announced larger-than-usual additional fees for larger retailers during the holiday.

The practical tips for people planning their holiday shopping: If you’re that person who waits until the last minute … don’t. Really.

If you’re buying online or sending holiday gifts to loved ones by mail, it might take far longer than it has in previous years. The Postal Service is almost pleading with people to mail Christmas gifts early. (And if you rely on e-commerce sites for diapers or other household essentials, it’s probably not a bad idea to build a buffer ahead of potential end-of-year shipping delays.)

Jason Goldberg, the chief commerce strategy officer at the advertising giant Publicis who goes by the nickname “Retail Geek,” also said that retailers have less merchandise stocked up than usual for the holidays because the pandemic disrupted their typical inventory planning.

That means you’re not likely to get cut-rate prices on Black Friday or the week before Christmas, because stores won’t discount merchandise that’s already in short supply. If there is a particular gift that you have your heart set on, it might not be there if you wait.

People may also want to consider alternatives to home delivery around the holidays. Ordering online for curbside pickup at stores, for example, skips strained delivery systems. Retailers are also trying alternative delivery options, including sending orders from local stores via couriers working for companies like Instacart and Shipt.

Scot Wingo, co-founder of ChannelAdvisor, which helps businesses sell online, said companies like Target that both have physical stores and ship a lot of home deliveries from their stores don’t rely as much on overwhelmed parcel companies. “That gives them an escape valve for shipageddon,” he said.

One silver lining in the potential holiday shopping drama is that it makes the invisible more visible. Just as the pandemic has made me appreciate the work of grocery clerks, health care workers, bus drivers, restaurant staffers and other sometimes overlooked people, it has also made plain the complexities of our shopping lives.

Those mouse clicks on Amazon or Target have always set in motion a chaotic ballet of warehouse workers, truck drivers, parcel delivery couriers and more, but we mostly didn’t think about it. The shipping delays this year might reveal the strains at the seams, but they’ve always been there.

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.

Your lead

After last week’s newsletter about “ransomware” attacks, in which criminals freeze organizations’ computer systems and demand a payment to unlock them, a number of readers asked about ways to prevent these hacks.

Ken Gruberman in Altadena, Calif., told us an orthopedics practice he used was locked out of its computer system for months because of a ransomware attack:

“The attack was enabled because a new employee clicked on a pop-up window which then allowed the thieves in … I learned that the IT staff at the practice never created simple guidelines for all employees on what to do when confronted with a bogus pop-up, message, web page or other anomaly.”

Gruberman said companies needed to do better to both train their employees and put security measures in place.

While I don’t know what happened at this practice, it’s true that ransomware attacks tend to start when someone in an organization clicks on an email attachment or web link that gives the criminals a route into the computer network.

The security expert I spoke with, Charles Carmakal of FireEye Mandiant, said attacks should not be blamed on people who make a mistake. (Still, here are tips to avoid falling for hackers on your work account or your home computer.)

Just because criminals were able to trick their way into one person’s computer doesn’t mean they can take over the entire organization’s network. Hackers usually take days or weeks to get access to the right parts of an organization’s computer network for a ransomware attack, Carmakal said. That gives the organization many opportunities to spot and stop the criminals.

The key, Carmakal said, is for organizations to think and plan ahead for potential attacks and invest in technology that can help spot unusual computer activity. My colleague Brian X. Chen had useful advice for businesses in a 2017 column.

So, yes, Carmakal said, it’s important for workers to learn how to spot potential malicious emails or documents, but ransomware is never one person’s fault.

  • Facebook makes lots of rules. It’s harder to enforce them. Facebook acknowledged it erred when it didn’t delete a majority of the content flagged by The Wall Street Journal that violated the company’s guidelines against things like depicting violence and posting dangerous misinformation. Lots of people take issue with Facebook trying to limit online conversations — see this article from my colleagues — but the company also often fails to act quickly or make fine distinctions in deciding what material breaks its own rules.

    Related: The New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose says that the blowback Facebook and Twitter are facing for limiting distribution of an unsubstantiated article about Joe Biden shows that “tech platforms have been controlling our information diets for years, whether we realized it or not.”

  • Here is something to make you feel guilty about your inbox: The best way to prevent overstuffed online email and document accounts that nag you to pay for more storage is to delete unwanted emails, photos, songs and digital files regularly, says a writer for Medium’s consumer technology publication. Here is how to do it. (Personally, I will wallow in my chaotic online file cabinets FOREVER.)

  • Have you seen the “How it started … How it’s going” meme? My colleague Sandra E. Garcia explains this internet phenomenon, which shows “the passage of time through oppositional bookends.” Also it is just dumb fun. This is my favorite version of the meme.

Wilbur the pig can play soccer with his snout. Well, sort of.

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.