The journey to under the tree

Thousands of Christmas packages pass through a 'hub' to get to their destination

December 22, 2012|BY KAUSTUV BASU |
  • Packages zoom past an operator Wednesday inside the FedEx facility on Newgate Boulevard. Volume increased dramatically with the Black Friday shopping season.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Chances are that those presents under your Christmas tree traveled a long way to get there.

And chances are, whether they came from a local retailer or were bought online, they passed through a “hub” and a distribution center at a shipping company such as FedEx or UPS or a sorting center at a local post office.

The warehouses where these shippers operate tend to be busy places this time of the year with thousands of packages swiftly passing through the buildings en route to their destinations.

The atmosphere was humming on a recent weekday in the first week of December at a FedEx Ground hub on Hagerstown’s Newgate Boulevard.

Workers worked quickly as packages of all shapes and sizes moved swiftly on conveyor belts. A maintenance crew waited on red three-wheeled bikes.

This operation is spread over 440,000 square feet. About 1,000 employees work at the facility but that number climbs to 1,250 between mid-October and the days leading up to Christmas, said Galen Steele, an assistant hub manager.

“There are only 30 such hubs for FedEx Ground in the United States,” Steele said.

Tractor-trailers arrive at the facility laden with packages from companies such as major department stores. Some trailers might also contain letters or gifts being sent by private individuals to family members or others.

The trailers are docked and packages are manually loaded onto conveyor belts that carry the packages to what’s called a primary sorter, another conveyor belt.

These belts have a contraption that pushes them onto another belt called a secondary sorter where they are sorted automatically once again and then guided to chutes that lead to other trailer trucks, where they are manually loaded and stacked once more.

Steele, the assistant manager at the sprawling warehouse, said the Hagerstown facility has been handling about 460,000 packages a day this holiday season, nearly double the number of packages it handles other times of the year.

“We deliver Christmas presents to people. This is something we really enjoy,” Steele said. 

One of the big operational challenges is predicting the number of packages during the holidays and planning staffing to meet the need, Steele said.

Some of the biggest customers at this FedEx hub include Walmart, Macy’s and Radioshack, Steele said. “Our trucks pick (packages) up from their distribution centers and bring them into the hub. Then they go everywhere,” Steele said.

The nearest UPS hub is in Hunt Valley, Md., but the shipping company does have a distribution center in Hagerstown that employs about 240 people with an additional 100 temporary hires during the holiday season, said Tom Farrell, a UPS spokesman.

Many of the seasonal hires help drivers deliver packages, he said.

The Hagerstown center distributes about 25,000 packages per day to commercial establishment and residences.

“During peak season or the holiday season, it increases 8,000 packages per day to 33,000 packages per day,” Farrell said.

“As online shopping has become popular, we are seeing more people buying stuff early in the peak season,” Farrell said. Still, UPS’ busiest shipping day is  Dec. 20.

At the Hagerstown Post Office on West Franklin Street, 75 employees have been at work sorting packages and letters this holiday season.

Jared Myers, officer-in-charge at the post office, said that the Baltimore District, which includes Washington County, was expected to ship about 2.5 million pieces of mail Dec. 17, its busiest shipping day. Nationally, the United States Postal Service was expected to process 658 million pieces of mail that day, Myers said.

“They (mail carriers) have the satisfaction of delivering a gift or package knowing it is for the holidays,” Myers said.

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