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Potential nor'easter threatens to exacerbate shipping delays, Postal Service and retailers warn

But neither snow nor Covid nor record demand can stay these couriers from their appointed rounds.
Entertainment & Tourism Industries In New York City Struggle Under Pandemic Restrictions
A USPS mail worker walks in SoHo during the first snow of the season on Dec. 9, 2020 in New York City.Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images

The U.S. Postal Service and retail giant Target are warning of potential shipping delays for holiday gift-givers.

Both are experiencing record package volumes, while the USPS said it is bracing for impacts from a nor'easter due to hit this week, on top of lower-than-usual staffing levels due to Covid-19.

More than 47 million people are under some sort of winter storm watch or warning as heavy snow is expected to blanket parts of the Northeast this week.

The severe weather, which began Sunday in the Pacific Northwest, is forecast to produce not only significant snow in the Northeast, but also freezing rain and ice across portions of central Virginia and North Carolina.

The storm comes as the nation enters what is traditionally one of the busiest weeks for shipping holiday gifts. Buyers have ramped up their online shopping during the pandemic this year, straining logistics systems that have also had to take additional precautions to protect essential delivery workers.

It's been a banner year for e-commerce: Gift-givers will send nearly 20 percent more presents through the mail this year, according to estimates by Adobe Analytics — and Cyber Monday saw $10 billion more in purchases this year than last year, about a 15 percent increase.

Consumers are advised to complete their holiday shipping as soon as possible in order to best ensure timely delivery.

“USPS is experiencing unprecedented package increases and limited employee availability due to the impacts of Covid-19,” a red alert across the top of the postal service website read Monday morning.

The postal service is closely monitoring the storm and taking "all available actions" to reduce delays, Kim Frum, a USPS spokesperson, told NBC News in an email.

“To help handle the expected volume increase, the Postal Service has the capacity to flex its nationwide processing and delivery network to meet surges in volume of mail and packages, including the expected additional holiday package volume that may result as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Frum added. “Our network is designed to handle temporary and seasonal increases in volume and we have the ability to deliver those additional holiday packages in a timely manner.”

But she also acknowledged that “unforeseen circumstances such as adverse weather conditions may impact delivery times.”

FedEx spokesperson Shannon Davis said in an email that while “our priority is the safety of our team members and meeting the service needs of our customers,” it was also the case that “some operations and service may be impacted by severe local weather conditions.”

"Contingency plans are in place” Davis said.

UPS told NBC News it has five staff meteorologists monitoring the situation. It has also developed contingency plans to route packages around the storms.

Target’s app posted a similar warning of “potential shipping delays” and the possibility that some orders “may be affected by high shipping volumes nationwide.”

"We’re using our nearly 1,900 stores, just miles from 75% of the population, to fulfill online orders and give guests choices in how they get their online purchases," Target spokesperson Aryn Ridge told NBC News in an email. "We don’t have a broad cutoff date to share at this time, but our guests are always able to see the date an item will arrive before checking out. Guests in need of last-minute gifts or other holiday items will have the option to place same-day pickup and delivery orders up to two hours before their local Target store closes on Christmas Eve."

Vendors and shippers are juggling multiple challenges this year that have increased the pressure on distribution networks.

“We’re seeing supply chains stretched even further this year, as port disruptions, a tight freight capacity market, weather events, the massive shift to e-commerce, home delivery and curbside, vaccine distribution and general Covid uncertainty continues to wear on,” Glenn Koepke, a senior vice president at FourKites, a logistics analytics company that serves major manufacturers, wrote in an email.

But manufacturers, shippers and retailers have been planning for months to meet the known and unknown challenges this year.

Citing the company’s online congestion dashboard, Koepke said that truck volume is up 30 percent, while dwell time, a measure of efficiency that indicates how long a truck stays at one scheduled stop, is down 15 percent.

“Truck shipments are running smoothly across the country — a sign of strong operational planning in the face of the anticipated holiday rush,” he said.

To manage capacity, all major shipping companies have increased their weekend deliveries and increased their holiday hiring. Several have imposed caps on how many items can be shipped from stores and imposed stiff holiday surcharges on retailers.

“We are working closely with our largest customers to steer volume to capacity and ensure the UPS network is reliable for all customers,” UPS spokesperson Matthew O’Connor said in an email. “This collaboration includes specific capacity allocations throughout the holiday season, and we continue to work closely with our large retail customers to ensure they are aware how much capacity is available to them.”

If you want items to arrive under the tree before Santa Claus, Dec. 15 is the recommended deadline for ground shipping for all carriers and for some stores, including JCPenney and Lowe’s. Days can vary by retailer but the sooner the better, and this week several deadlines kick in. Nike told NBC News that items would arrive by Christmas if ordered by Dec. 15, while the deadline at Barnes & Noble is Dec. 16.

Each shipper maintains a list showing the date by which customers have to ship using expedited services in order to arrive on time via USPS, FedEx and UPS.

If gift-givers are shipping items themselves and not simply ordering online, they should sign up for delivery alerts. An alert saying “Christmas delivery” could mean Christmas Eve, or even the night of Christmas itself, carriers said.