December 10, 2020

Pandemic plus holidays? That equals a huge increase in online shopping and about 800 million more packages to be delivered than last year. But shipping companies and merchants that aren’t Amazon aren’t handling it all that well. For example, last week, UPS limited the number of packages it would pick up from certain merchants like the Gap and Macy’s. In some ways, this seems like something folks should have prepared for, but it’s a big deal for shippers to increase capacity. It takes warehouses, fulfillment centers, trucks, planes.

And unlike Amazon, shipping companies can’t spin up a quick army of independent contractors. I spoke with Matthias Winkenbach, director of the MIT Megacity Logistics Lab. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Matthias Winkenbach: One very important point here is, obviously, workforce flexibility. If you look at the big parcel carriers, most of them are, for good reasons, relying on a very, very stable workforce, usually, also, quite unionized workforce. If they want to maintain that model, they’re obviously less flexible in scaling up or scaling down the workforce on-demand...