Shipping Delays Are Wreaking Havoc on Small Businesses

6 min read • Feb 03, 2021 • Joe Kukura

Most Americans stopped worrying about postal service delivery delays once the 2020 presidential election was decided and the mail-in ballots had all been counted. But small businesses know that deliveries are still slow and arriving late, and many had a rocky holiday shopping season because of it.

But the delays aren’t only with the mail. Online sales are soaring during the pandemic, and the online holiday shopping season is still very much in effect as gift certificate and returns season continue through the end of January.

Small businesses across the country experienced holiday shipping disasters that were not their fault but still left their paying customers jilted—and complaining to the press. In San Francisco, a computer glitch caused customers not to receive their Thanksgiving turkeys in time for the holiday. In North Carolina, customers of a woman’s boutique received their shipments not just days late but months after their scheduled delivery date. CBS News estimates that nationwide, more than a million packages intended as Christmas gifts did not reach their destination by December 25.   

Every delivery service has had delays lately, not just the US Postal Service. ”We had numerous delivery problems the last couple of months with UPS, with FedEx, and with USPS,” Vermont Flannel Co. president Mark Baker told USA Today. “We used all 3 depending on where our flannel blankets were going and how many people were buying.” 

Small business owners have watched helplessly as their packages sit for days or have even seen their tracking information disappear entirely as packages get lost. It’s no fault of their own, but small businesses can still get dragged on social media, see bad online reviews pile up, and realize that this could affect their bottom line. 

But the situation is not hopeless. It’s a very real sentiment that some shoppers really do want to buy local during the pandemic because they don’t want to see their favorite local businesses close. Everyone understands that logistics are tougher these days, and delays are happening routinely to many small businesses. There are ways to diplomatically apologize and maintain buyer loyalty when shipments are delayed by third-party factors beyond your control, and it’s important to understand why this is happening so you can communicate it to your buyers. 

Shipping Delays Have Gotten Worse

Most media coverage of postal service delays came over the summer and in the lead-up to the presidential election that had so much vote-by-mail participation. Small businesses know that delays got far worse during the holiday season. National Public Radio spoke with a Louisville, Kentucky, spice market owner and reported that “over the summer, she experienced what disruptions to shipping can be like. But what’s happening now, she says, is far worse.” 

“Supply and demand don’t match up,” NPR explained. “And in this case, demand for shipping services has just shot up, and supply just hasn’t caught up yet. And that’s what’s happening here. We do not have a big enough supply of shipping services. And businesses, especially small businesses, which have already taken such a beating from the pandemic, are suffering.”

The holidays are over, but the underlying problems are still in place. And one of the biggest problems right now is that many delivery services have workers infected or forced into quarantine, so the companies are short-staffed. According to USA Today, the US Postal Service has seen nearly 30,000 of its employees infected with coronavirus this year. 

Most customers will understand if you explain that your delivery service is understaffed because of COVID-19. That is a historically unique circumstance. But the best practices for resolving a shipping problem with an irate customer remain the same. 

How to Deal with Customers’ Shipping Problems

While the shipping delays may not be your business’s fault, many companies will make a peace offering that comes out of their own pocket. You may choose to send that customer another unit or product at no cost to them and absorb that cost yourself. Or you could sweeten their deal with complimentary gift certificates, which is still a loss but may be less of one. This is a very personal decision for your business to eat a cost, as it depends on whether you are currently in a position to do so.

Don’t kick down blame to your staff or a third party—it’s a bad look. It’s a much better approach to praise your employees or the delivery service and compliment or acknowledge that they’ve been working incredibly hard and doing their best. Take responsibility and put the blame on yourself, apologize, and assure your customers that you’ll do better at finding solutions for them.

If it’s a large-scale issue that affects many customers, consider providing some technical detail on what went wrong. And do not hesitate to mention if there have been infections among your employees or delivery partners.

If your tone is approachable and friendly, many upset customers will change their tone, too. While some bad reviews are permanent, don’t underestimate how many reviewers will go back and revise a negative review if you leave them feeling better.

Other Options for Shipping 

If you want to change your shipping strategy, realize that FedEx and UPS will likely be more expensive than the US Postal Service. But if you are a beloved small business with a dedicated following, you may be able to charge more. Some buyers genuinely want to shop locally. You can find ways to pass costs to them, or explore the option of insuring your shipments in case anything goes wrong.

You might hold out hope that the incoming Biden administration would bring a new postmaster general and improved US mail service. That’s certainly possible, but confirming a new postmaster general will take weeks or months. If you have shipments behind schedule, do not expect any immediate relief from a transfer of power in Washington, DC.

The biggest problem with deliveries used to be package thieves. Now shipments are disappearing without even reaching their destination. The institutional delivery delays are happening for the very understandable reasons of short-handedness and far higher package volumes. But your small business can’t make excuses, and you have to find ways to box out of these problems.

Joe Kukura

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.