As brick and mortar stores were forced to close up shop during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, Canada Post was busier than ever as online shopping went into overdrive.
In April and May, even as the volume of mail dropped significantly due to a reduction in direct advertising mail, the agency reported “Christmas-level” volumes of parcels. The surge was a result of Canadians staying home during the pandemic and turning to online retailers for everyday essentials that would usually be picked up on a grocery run.
“We saw parcel levels that we would normally only see around Christmas — we would deliver up to two-million parcels in one day — that’s what we would see around Cyber Monday, Black Friday week sales,” says Jon Hamilton, spokesperson for Canada Post.
Hamilton says as the weeks in lockdown progressed, people began expanding their online shopping to other, more unusual items.
“Things like barbecues and patio sets. We even saw a pair of kayaks go through our facilities,” says Hamilton.
In addition to the surge in volume, new safety protocols like social distancing within postal processing facilities led to further delays and substantial backlogs, well beyond expectations.
“Nobody develops a processing facility to keep people six-feet apart,” says Hamilton. “We had to put those changes in place and make sure employees were sticking with it — and they have, they’ve done an incredible job.”
The Mississauga processing plant has become somewhat notorious for delays in recent months, with many sharing memes and complaints online about their parcels being stuck there indefinitely.
Hamilton says the reason that particular facility is jammed up is that most of the online shopping orders in Canada are fulfilled in the GTA.
“If you’re buying something in Canada, most of it is packaged and shipped out of Toronto – so the gateway up in Mississauga is a big facility [for that].”
Coupled with the increase in local packages, international parcels — especially those coming from China — were delayed due to flights being grounded. China Post sent their items by ship, which took considerably longer.
In order to keep up with the influx and changes due to COVID-19, the agency implemented many of the measures they usually use only during the December holiday season, but with added safety restrictions.
Temporary employees, who are usually hired when seasonal relief is needed, were brought in and trained in safety protocols to ensure round-the-clock processing stayed on track. Deliveries continue to be made on weekends as well.
In addition, Hamilton said the agency has been leveraging their entire network and capacity at different locations to move parcels through faster. So while a parcel from a particular retailer may usually take a specific route, for example through the Mississauga plant, during the pandemic it could have been routed through Montreal to get it to you sooner.
While delivery guarantees are still suspended, Hamilton says they have managed to catch up to some degree and parcel delays have now been significantly reduced to just a few days.
He says they’ve made a lot of progress over the last month as postal workers have become accustomed to the new COVID-safe workflow and have been processing and delivering at record levels.
The agency also worked with customers who use Canada Post for their businesses to better manage the sudden growth of parcels from them as well — to the tune of a 400 to 500 per cent increase from some.
The easing of restrictions and stores reopening has also seen many go back to shopping at retail stores, which has helped take some of the pressure off the postal service.
“We’re still at high numbers though,” says Hamilton. “In June we delivered 75 per cent more parcels than we would in a typical June.”
Hamilton says the ability to track parcels helps ease a lot of frustration for customers and says not to panic if you suddenly see no movement on the tracking page.
“When you’re backlogged at a facility … when [your parcel] is stuck in a truck and can’t get into the facility … it seems to go into a bit of a black hole. But it’s just waiting to go through the processing facility, which never stops — it’s just that there’s more in line in front of it,” he says.
Despite the backlog, Hamilton still encourages people to also continue supporting small businesses that may have just started selling online and rely on Canada Post to deliver their goods.
“Please continue to do that, we are going to get those items to you. It might take a little bit longer but the impact is huge for those small businesses,” he says.
Hamilton adds that customers have been largely understanding and have shown their support for postal workers with notes on their mailboxes and signs in their windows.
“There is a level of patience out there that is good to see,” he says.
For those running low on patience, Hamilton reiterates that they are doing their absolute best, but they need to put safety first and will follow public health guidelines even if it means delays have to continue.
“We’ll continue to look at our processes and how we can make this better, how can we learn for the future,” says Hamilton. “One thing is clear — Canadians are going to do more and more online shopping,” he says, adding that e-commerce has become vital to businesses of all sizes.
“We have to continue to improve because we carry the bulk of online shopping in Canada.”