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Principles of Management

Critical Thinking Case

Principles of ManagementCritical Thinking Case

How Do Amazon, UPS, and FedEx Manage Peak Seasons?

Typically, the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday) marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season in the United States. Holiday sales, typically defined as sales occurring in November and December, account for roughly 30 percent of annual sales for U.S. retailers (Holiday Forecasts and Historical Sales 2015). For 2016, total online sales from November 10 to December 31 amounted to 91.7 billion dollars. And the top retailers for this period were eBay, Amazon, Walmart, and Target (Tasker 2016). The growth in online sales appears inevitable, but how do the top shippers, UPS and FedEx, manage the sudden upsurge?

Not always so well. In 2013, both FedEx and UPS underestimated holiday demand, and with bad weather conditions as well, struggled to deliver packages as promised. Since then, both carriers have worked hard to keep adequate resources available to handle the end-of-year upsurge. But in 2014, UPS overcompensated and had too much capacity, once again damaging profitability (Livengood 2017).

Matching retailer expectations to reality is a challenge, and not just for the shipping companies. Although retailers would prefer to know how much to expect in sales, forecasts will be inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. In preparing its forecast for the 2017 peak season, Logistics Management examined economic factors, such as GDP, job growth, retail sales, and inventory levels. It also looked at imports. An informal survey of logistical professionals found that 93.5 percent expect the 2017 season to be the same as 2016 (35.5 percent) or more active (58 percent) (Berman 2017).

In June 2017, UPS announced that it would be adding a surcharge to some peak season rates. According to the UPS website, “During the 2016 holiday season, the company’s average daily volume exceeded 30 million packages on more than half of the available shipping days. In contrast, on an average non­peak day, the company ships more than 19 million packages” (UPS Establishes New Peak Shipping Charge 2017). The rate for the 2017 peak season would apply to select services and to oversize shipments, primarily (UPS Establishes New Peak Shipping Charge 2017). Analysts see the surcharge as a signal that UPS is the rate setter in parcel delivery. Such an assessment is not surprising given that the increase in parcel delivery as an outcome of increased e-commerce is seen as a core driver of earnings for UPS (Franck 2017).

Second-ranked FedEx, in contrast, announced that it would not follow suit but instead would “forgo most holiday surcharges on home deliveries this year” (Schlangenstein 2017). The surcharges levied by UPS are aimed primarily at small shippers, not the larger contract shippers. By not adding a seasonal surcharge, FedEx might hope to capture sales from individuals and small businesses that are deterred by the UPS surcharge (Schlangenstein 2017).

Kevin Sterling, a Seaport Global Holdings analyst, believes that FedEx has the existing capacity to absorb additional ground shipments. “[FedEx is] going to let UPS be Scrooge at Christmas” (Schlangenstein 2017). UPS already has a contract with Amazon, the de facto behemoth of online shopping, for normal shipping, leaving room for FedEx to pick up the slack during the holiday rush (Schlangenstein 2017).

In contrast, UPS reports that the additional charge is needed to offset the costs of additional resources necessary to achieve expected upsurges in capacity. UPS spokesperson Glenn Zaccara commented, “UPS’s peak season pricing positions the company to be appropriately compensated for the high value we provide at a time when the company must double daily delivery volume for six to seven consecutive weeks to meet customer demands” (Schlangenstein 2017).

With or without surcharges, price structures at both companies strive to discourage shipment of heavy, odd-sized, or oversized packages because such packages won’t flow through either company’s sorting systems and require special handling. All the same, FedEx has seen a 240 percent increase in such shipments over the last 10 years, which make up roughly 10 percent of all packages shipped using its ground services. And although FedEx is not adding a holiday surcharge, per se, it has added charges for packages that require extra handling, particularly shipments between November 20 through December 24 (Schlangenstein 2017).

Critical Thinking Questions:
  1. What do you think are some of the difficulties of adding 25 percent more employees for the holiday season? What kind of planning do you think would be needed?
  2. China effectively shuts down for two weeks each year and celebrates the lunar new year. How does that resemble (or not) peak season in Western countries?
  3. The case focuses on U.S. markets. How are European markets affected by holiday shopping?
  4. Have your own shopping habits changed with the ease of online shopping? If so, how? Do you expect them to change when you graduate and have more disposable income?


Berman, Jeff. 2017. “Prospects for Peak Season appear to be cautiously optimistic.” Logistics Management.

Franck, Thomas. 2017. “UPS set to make a boatload on its new surcharges during holiday season, Citi predicts.” CNBC.

Holiday Forecasts and Historical Sales. 2015. National Retail Federation.

Livengood, Anna. 2017. “UPS’ Peak Season Surprise.” Veriship Resource Center.

Schlangenstein, Mary. 2017. “FedEx Will Shun Most Home Holiday Fees, Unlike UPS.” Transport Topics.

Tasker, Becky. 2016. “2016 Holiday Shopping: Up-To-The-Minute Data From ADI.”

UPS Establishes New Peak Shipping Charge.” 2017. UPS Pressroom.

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