Small business owners around NC say postal service delays add to the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
Steve Mitchell depends on the mail. The owner of Greensboro bookshop Scuppernong Books ramped up online sales in the spring as a means of surviving the COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders that forced him to close the doors of his stores for weeks.
In the months since Governor Roy Cooper allowed the reopening of retail businesses, Scuppernong has kept its in-person sales limited, mostly by appointment, with online orders continuing to be a major source of revenue. And in recent weeks, those orders at the independent bookstore have been consistently delayed by days and sometimes up to a week because of slowdowns in the US Postal Service, Mitchell said.
“We’ve seen that it takes longer for people to get their books now,” Mitchell said. “And because we can actually track where they’re going, we can see they’re being sent circuitous routes or sitting someplace for days before they move.”
In July, US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy—a Greensboro resident himself and a prominent GOP and Trump fundraiser—enacted sweeping cuts to the postal service after his June arrival. Those cost-cutting measures included eliminating overtime for mail carriers, reducing post office hours and removing postal boxes, among other actions. While DeJoy insisted the cuts were in response to revenue losses at the agency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the move faced harsh criticism that it was intended to disrupt voting by mail in the upcoming election. In mid-August, DeJoy said the postal service would suspend many of these changes until after the November election.
But the effect of those cuts continues to reverberate as widespread delays in the mail service have impacted individuals and businesses.
Delays Come as Online Sales Increase
John Pugh, owner of House of Swank—a Raleigh-based clothing company known for its t-shirts with slogans like “Bless Your Heart” and “Keep Raleigh Boring”—has noticed shipping issues in recent weeks. Pugh said most shipments are delayed by two to three days, and he’s received calls from customers about packages that track as delivered but don’t actually arrive until the next day or later.
“It’s troubling,” he said. “My dad was a rural letter carrier for a number of years, so I have a huge soft spot for the postal service and its role in our country.”
Though the House of Swank store has reopened, Pugh says online sales continue to account for a major portion of their business, likely because many people are still avoiding public places due to COVID-19.
“There’s been an increase in online sales, and in general people ordering instead of actually going out shopping,” said Pugh. “Our online sales are way up over last year.”
Ripple Effects of USPS Delays
While using another shipping service like UPS or FedEx would allow businesses to bypass the post office, many small businesses find those companies’ rates cost-prohibitive. On top of that, those services have experienced delays, too, likely related to greater volume due to shippers pivoting from the post office.
Sam Wilcox, owner of Doc’s Basement comic book shop in Belmont, said he’s struggled with delays to his inventory shipments via UPS in the past month.
“You can pay for early shipment delivery so you can receive your inventory a day early because the release of comics is on Wednesday,” he said. “So we need the deliveries to come in on Tuesday to be ready for Wednesday sales.”
Wilcox said he’s had several deliveries arrive late, which costs him sales on a product heavily dependent on being available on a specific release date.
“It’s really problematic because I have to pay for this stuff in advance, but you can’t really sell anything if you have to tell customers to come back,” he said. “When you have bills, you have employees’ payday coming up, but you don’t have the thing that’s making you money—it makes a huge difference to have things delivered timely.”
And while all these business owners agree shipping delays threaten their bottom line, they also concede it’s a larger problem than the individual carriers servicing their stores.
“We’re already fighting Amazon, and then we’re fighting the pandemic, and now we’re fighting the post office,” said Mitchell, the Scuppernong bookstore owner.
But the problems don’t rest with the actual postal workers, he said.
“They want to do a good job like everyone else, and they’re actually being physically prevented from doing a good job,” Mitchell said. “It’s important not to blame them for issues going on somewhere else.”