Thanks, Amazon. Campus Mailrooms Struggle to Keep Up With Boom in Packages for Students

October 08, 2015

When Stephen M. Gray started work in the University of Maryland at College Park’s mailroom 29 years ago, he mostly fielded letters to students. Now he sees "anything you’d need to set up house," and it’s all coming in boxes — hundreds and hundreds of them. In the digital age, the increase in online-shopping habits, particularly among college students, is presenting a new challenge for college mail services.

The University of Connecticut’s recent move to streamline its backed-up package-delivery system made us wonder: How are other campuses handling the onslaught of cardboard? Here’s what we found after talking with officials in several campus mailrooms.

Residential colleges of all types are seeing more packages than ever before.

Letters have been supplanted by email and texts, but the packages keep coming. Benjamin Scott, mailing-services supervisor at Bowdoin College, sees half a tray of letters each day, compared with the eight he sorted a decade ago.

But he’s seeing the opposite trend for packages. Last September, Mr. Scott handled 3,000 packages in one week during the busiest time of the semester. This year, that number doubled for the same week, and he estimates the Maine college will break 50,000 packages this year alone.

"People don’t go to the corner store anymore," he says.

'What was once a rush at the campus bookstore is now a rush at the post office.'
Colleges have also seen an influx of packages on move-in days and during holiday seasons, notably candy and costumes near Halloween and gifts on Valentine’s Day, says Siraaj Abdullah, mail-service manager at American University, in Washington, D.C.

The busiest time by far is the start of a semester, when all students order books and housing supplies — even mini-fridges come by mail. Mr. Abdullah says the mailroom fielded 8,092 packages in January 2014, but that number increased to 11,433 this past January.

The mailroom is the new bookstore.

With an increase in online book services, students are far less likely to buy their textbooks at the campus store. Whether students order through their college’s online bookstore or through outlets like Amazon, thousands of books now come through campus mail.

Berea College closed its bookstore last year in favor of an online bookseller, so that students could save money with more options for used books, says Beverly F. Cook, supervisor of the Kentucky campus’s post office. Of the 8,000 packages in campus mail this semester, about 3,000 arrived in the first four weeks, many of them books.

"What was once a rush at the campus bookstore is now a rush at the post office," Ms. Cook says. But after 45 years, "I just take it one day at a time."

Amazon’s package stream is the heaviest.

Many students order their goods from Amazon, in part because the online giant offers college students a free six-month trial of Amazon Prime, which provides unlimited shipping. The company used to deliver directly to residence halls and departments through FedEx and UPS at American University, says Mr. Abdullah, but now the United States Postal Service also handles Amazon deliveries, and the flow comes through his office.

It’s "all hands on deck" when the local post office’s mail arrives, and the biggest challenge has been finding enough digital scanners to record the signatures of recipients. With the number of packages his staff delivers to residence halls, 13 scanners, he says, have not been enough.

Bigger boxes mean bigger mailrooms.

As the University of Maryland adjusts to handling larger packages, new equipment — such as bundle and tying machines, tubs for sorting parcels, and bigger shelves — has been necessary.

"Most of the equipment we were using was to handle flat mail," says Mr. Gray, the supervisor of departmental operations, and there was no need for shelves.

At Bowdoin, mail services designated a separate room for package distribution and storage. The five-member staff hired four temporary workers to handle the rush at the semester’s start, when one worker used to suffice. The mailroom also borrowed a 54-foot trailer from UPS for the first month of the semester to store larger boxes.