Crisis of Christmas Deliveries: Will Your Last-Minute Gift Make It In Time?

Christmas Deliveries: Will They Make It?
WATCH Christmas Deliveries: Will They Make It?

This is the time of year that proves there are two kinds of people -- those who completed their holiday shopping and shipping weeks ago and those who are scrambling to the post office mere days before Christmas.

But you can't blame those procrastinators for buying into the magical story of American retail, littered with promises of a Christmas delivery if you order by mid-afternoon, two days prior. How in the name of time and space is that even possible?

This was a huge year for online shopping. Shoppers spent almost $32 billion online this holiday season, a 15 percent increase from this time last year, according to ComScore, an Internet marketing research company that tracks web use. But it still takes that human component to get the gift to your door.

Stores, such as Urban Outfitters and Saks Inc. are betting their reputations on the muscles and wits of workers like Vinny Plateroti, a UPS delivery driver who is part of a global team that delivered 300 packages a second today.

"The onset of the Internet really changed the way we do business because a lot of people ordering online, lots of companies offer free shipping there by Christmas Eve," Plateroti said. "Many many people take advantage of that -- myself included."

If you are paying for your own freight, brace yourself -- that last-minute shipping charge could cost more than the gift. To send a five-pound package from New York to Los Angeles on Dec. 23, UPS and FedEx both say they will deliver it by Christmas Eve, but you'll pay upwards of $140 in shipping.

For a gift to ship UPS from the retailer to your home, the package will ride on a couple of the company's 549 jets. It will be scanned around 23 times, while it rides some of the 155 miles of conveyor belts in UPS's monster hub, based in Louisville, Ky. Eventually, the package will catch a final lift on one of the 93,736 goody-laden UPS delivery trucks, buzzing around the globe.

But all the horsepower, jet power and computing power means nothing if the wintry weather turns "Grinchy," shutting down airports or turning roads to ice. On a night such as tonight, where a blizzard has torn through the Rockies and the Midwest, a tornado was spotted in Georgia and high winds have rocked California, the hopes and dreams of children everywhere to have presents delivered in time to open Christmas morning rest on the shoulders of one man -- Jim Cramer, a UPS meteorologist.

When a weather alarm goes off in Cramer's workshop in Louisville, thousands of people have to adjust schedules, staffing and sorting stations. This Christmas, Cramer said, everyone seems to be in good shape to get their packages on time from UPS this year.

"Our prediction is very good," he said. "Rain for most of the East. There will be snow in the Northeast, but north of where we land our jets, so I think our packages can get to where they are going."

However, weather-watchers at FedEx have a setup that rivals the National Hurricane Center, and they have issued a warning that winter storms in Colorado could cause package delays out West.

The mail system has gotten a bad wrap these past few weeks. FedEx had to issue an apology after one of its drivers was caught on video tape delivering a computer monitor by throwing it over a fence. Best Buy had to apologize for failing to deliver some items that consumers ordered online around Thanksgiving. A post office in Boca Raton, Fla., just delivered a holiday package from Arkansas that was sent out 15 days before LAST Christmas.

So even early bird shippers are at the mercy of a system that occasionally stumbles, but it is a system still manages to deliver more than 120 million packages with UPS and more than 50 million packages with FedEx during the holiday season in time to place them under the tree. It's the kind of miracle that comes with the hard work of countless hidden helpers.