ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When that iPad, Xbox Kinect or cashmere sweater makes it under the tree by Christmas, you can thank Ann Baxter and a legion of workers just like her.
Baxter is among those hustling this week inside the cavernous FedEx hub in Anchorage, one of the shipping company's busiest sorting centers.
The same scene is playing out companywide, in fact, and FedEx said Monday was expected to be the busiest day in its history, with nearly 16 million packages moving on its conveyer belts, trucks and planes. The Anchorage hub was expected to handle 145,000 packages on this single day – almost double what workers here handle on a normal day.
"It's pretty nonstop," Baxter said Monday as she sent box after box along a network of conveyers, each belt carrying packages destined for a different major hub in the lower 48. In the background was the din of huge equipment running and the whine of forklifts, the air tinged with the smell of exhaust.
"This is kind of our Super Bowl," said Connie Carter, managing director for FedEx's Alaska operations. "We get ready for this day and the next two weeks all year long."
Monday's predicted companywide record is up 13 percent from 14.2 million on the busiest day last year, and double what is handled on a normal day. That jump in shipments bodes well for the nation's retailers, online stores and larger rival UPS, which has its single busiest day next week.
About half of the increase is from the company's SmartPost partnership with the U.S. Postal Service. SmartPost moves lighter, cheaper packages through FedEx that are then delivered by a postal worker. A growing number of online and catalog purchases is driving growth in that unit and across the company.
Online holiday spending since Nov. 1 is up 12 percent over last year to nearly $22 billion, according to research company comScore. Dec. 6 and Wednesday ranked in the top five days for online spending ever, comScore said.
Consumers are using smart phones and other mobile devices, as well as computers, to buy and ship. Online auction and shopping website eBay said Monday that Sunday was its busiest mobile shopping day so far this year. In the U.S. shoppers bought $5 million worth of items on eBay, more than double on the same Sunday last year. Mobile users are expected to buy $1.5 billion worth of goods this year compared with $600 million last year, according to eBay.
With many merchants promoting Friday as "Free Shipping Day," online orders overall are likely to spike again on that day.
Online spending increases come with modestly brighter prospects for holiday spending in general. Retail experts predict total spending will increase by 2 to 4 percent over last year.
Although this week is the busiest for both UPS and FedEx, there is still time to meet the Christmas deadline. The last day for guaranteed FedEx ground service delivery is Friday. Procrastinators can choose pricier options like FedEx two-day shipping until Tuesday, Dec. 21, or overnight service through Dec. 23.
UPS expects its busiest day on Dec. 22, when it will move about 24 million packages – 60 percent more than a normal day. The Atlanta-based company will accept packages for Christmas delivery through Dec. 23.
FedEx expects to move 223.3 million shipments worldwide this holiday season. UPS will deliver almost double that – 430 million packages.
This week FedEx will move more than 63 million packages compared with 57.5 million last year. Wondering what's in Santa's sacks? FedEx says it's mostly books from Internet retailers like Amazon.com, clothing purchases, personal electronics such as iPads and smart phones, as well as luxury goods.
High-tech imports from Asia, including iPhones and computers, have driven growth for both FedEx and UPS this year, as businesses invest in hardware upgrades and consumers stock up on the latest gadgets.
FedEx relies on its 285,000 employees working overtime to handle the holiday rush. UPS hired 50,000 part-time workers to help sort and deliver the packages to their destinations – about the same number it hired last year.
Industry analysts and economists track FedEx and UPS shipping performance for signs of consumer spending trends and the health of the broader economy, because both shippers handle a wide variety of goods shipped between manufacturers and consumers.