San Francisco

It's ‘Like Our Super Bowl:' Inside the Holiday Rush at FedEx

The 2018 holiday season could again see record numbers of FedEx Express packages shipped to customers from online merchants

What to Know

  • FedEx Express sorts 3,000 packages per hour in San Francisco, mostly before the sun comes up
  • The holidays are "all hands on deck," and many drivers sign up to work overtime
  • December 21 is the last day to ship for a guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery

It's hours before dawn, and a long white truck pulls up to the loading dock at 1875 Marin Street in San Francisco.

The truck is carrying what amounts to a full load of holiday cheer: Four shiny metal containers, each one curved to follow the contours of the airplane it just arrived on from Memphis. In total, the containers could have more than 2,000 FedEx Express packages inside them, bound for homes and businesses in San Francisco. And the workers here will sort them all in less than an hour.

"This is like our Super Bowl," said FedEx Express senior manager Matt Cummings. "This is the time of year when everything comes in and we have to make the holiday magic happen for people."

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Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
FedEx says it isn't handling many Christmas cards this holiday season. The conveyor belt at the San Francisco sorting station is filled with brown cardboard boxes from online retailers.

For the shipping industry, the holiday peak period has always been a challenge of staffing, planning and efficient execution. But in recent years, the rush has stretched from a week to nearly a month of heavy volume leading up to Christmas Eve.

"We see a lot more boxes," Cummings said. "We don't see a lot of letters this time of year — the Christmas card industry, we don't see a whole lot of that anymore, but we see boxes. Man, do we see boxes."

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Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
FedEx packages arrive from the airport in "cans:" shiny metal containers contoured to take up every available inch inside an aircraft. Each one can hold up to 600 packages and weigh up to 6,000 pounds.

Cummings said FedEx is likely to experience another record-setting December, thanks mainly to holiday presents ordered from online retailers. On the crowded conveyor belt in the San Francisco station, brown boxes bearing the names of clothing and electronics retailers crawled their way past dozens of drivers, who each load their own trucks before heading out on the streets.

Each package bears a yellow sticker with a vehicle and route number on it, assigned automatically by a computer system while the packages were still in the air. The system adjusts routes based on package volume to even out the amount of time drivers spend on the road.

"Let's say that the Richmond District has an influx of deliveries that day. It will build more routes in the Richmond District to make sure we have enough people out there to cover it," Cummings said.

FedExStill - Trucks
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
FedEx drivers line up at the conveyor belt and load their own trucks before heading out on the road. That ensures they'll know where each package is — and by hitting the road all at once, after the last truck arrives from the airport, they ensure no package is left behind.

FedEx begins receiving deliveries at its San Francisco station as early as 2 a.m., and begins sorting them by 5:30 a.m. Trucks stay lined up until the last packages arrive from the airport — usually around 8 a.m. — and then drivers depart all at once for the neighborhoods where they'll deliver their cargo.

Though Santa Claus may deliver well into the wee hours of Christmas morning, the deadline to ship with FedEx is sooner than that: December 21 is the final day to drop off a FedEx Express package for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery.

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