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With online sales spiking and shipping crunched, the rush is on for Upper Valley retailers

  • Sugarbush Farm Co-owners Jeff Luce, left, and his brother Ralph, right, pack and ship orders of Vermont-made food products for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week from the weekend after Thanksgiving through Christmas. The brothers were part of a team of five working in the farm's shipping department in Pomfret, Vt., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Averaging between 500 to 600 packages a day, one day this week they topped 900 in a single day. as shippers have set earlier deadlines to make holiday deliveries. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nancy Blood, of Hartford, Vt., weighs out two-pound measures of cheddar cheese cut from a 40 pound block at Sugarbush Farm in Pomfret, Vt., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Though Blood has worked at the farm for 29 years, the business has increased staffing this holiday season to help process orders. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cathy Willey searches for an item in the Sugarbush Farm cooler while preparing an order in Pomfret, Vt., Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 12/12/2020 10:48:27 PM
Modified: 12/12/2020 10:50:30 PM

The holiday season is always a busy time of year for Betsy Luce, co-owner of Sugarbush Farm, a family operation that makes and sells cheese and maple syrup.

But in the family’s 75 years running the business, which is in Pomfret but has a Woodstock mailing address, there has never been a holiday season like this one. On Monday, “somewhere between 500 and 600” mail-order packages went out the door, Luce said. The postal driver made four pickups during the day.

“We saw a big surge in November, about 75% above normal,” Luce said. “Since then it’s slacked off somewhat. Last week we were up only 20%.”

Start with the business crush of a normal holiday season. Couple that with a global pandemic that is making people wary of going out in public to shop. Add the convenience and safety of ordering on the web and include the always-reliable food gift basket, and the scene at Upper Valley online retailers resembles Santa’s workshop.

“I got four people that are just packing and shipping. Two people, all they do is make gift boxes. Three people taking phone orders and writing gift cards. Then six to seven people cutting cheese,” Luce said.

She noted the seasonal help includes “two college students that are doing remote learning and two retired ladies.”

“We have a pretty good handle on it,” Luce said.

But Luce, anticipating that this year promised a higher volume of holiday business, sent out email notices in early November that customers had better place their orders for retail ground delivery by Dec. 15, the date major carriers are warning packages should be shipped in order to count on them being delivered in time for Christmas.

Luce’s previous experience, however, suggests that not everyone will heed the advice.

“We always think the orders will let up eight to nine days before Christmas, and they never do,” Luce said.

Bracing for what some are calling “shipageddon,” an estimated 3 billion packages are expected to flood the U.S. package delivery system, 800 million more than last year. Shippers are so overwhelmed this year that demand is projected to exceed capacity by some 7 million packages per day, according to ShipMatrix, which supplies technology to the shipping industry.

Running a company that sells its product online is still a relatively new business for Sheila Patinkin, owner of Vermont Wagyu in Springfield, Vt., a farm that raises the breed of high-end Japanese beef cattle. Initially the farm’s beef had been sold mostly to the New York City restaurant market, but when COVID-19 hit and restaurants either closed or scaled back, Patinkin pivoted to increased online sales directly to consumers.

Last Monday, with the donated help of neighbors who thought it “sounded like fun,” Patinkin shipped out 130 orders and on Wednesday she shipped another 70 orders. Then by midafternoon, when they wrapped up, “I let everybody go home because they were all so exhausted.”

But Patinkin faces acute challenges because she has a narrow window to get the beef to her customers before Christmas.

The luxury beef requires refrigeration in shipping — Patinkin uses dry ice, ice blankets and insulated packaging — and the frozen contents remain cold enough only for limited time. This week she will be shipping on Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of Friday ground delivery.

And on Dec. 21, Patinkin will only ship for one-day delivery or by air.

Anything else “would be way too risky otherwise,” she said. Another concern is running out of dry ice while coronavirus vaccine shipments create a spike in demand, although Patinkin’s supplier “tells us we are OK; he anticipated it.”

Most Upper Valley retail businesses are small operations and, if they are not relying on seasonal help to get them through the Christmas crush, then they are working “pretty much 24/7,” said Elaine McCabe, who with her husband, Mike McCabe, owns Bradford, Vt., caramel candymaker Red Kite Candy.

Red Kite’s online holiday sales are up 133% since Thanksgiving compared to last year, reported Mike McCabe.

On some days they ship out as many as 300 mail orders, she said. And for each order, Elaine McCabe includes a handwritten note on a card, either a message from the giftgiver to the recipient or a thank-you from McCabe to the purchaser.

On a recent Saturday night, McCabe spent three hours writing notes.

“I go through about 30 pens a season,” McCabe said. (She prefers a Staedtler TriPlus Fineliner.)

“People say they have machines that can do this,” Elaine McCabe said. “Ugh, uh ... no, it’s too important to me. That’s not who I am.”

Candy is an entry-level indulgence, but even some costly luxuries are having a banner year.

At Stave Puzzles in Norwich, they had to stop taking orders in September for puzzles that will be delivered by Christmas, according to co-owner Paula Tardie.

“Typically, we hit our capacity in early to mid-November,” said Tardie, who doesn’t anticipate being able to accept new orders until February for the custom-designed and hand-crafted and wooden puzzles that cost upward of $1,000 each.

“Everyone has been staying at home, so our puzzles have just skyrocketed,” Tardie said.

Given the cost of the puzzles, which can take a crafter anywhere from a few days to a week to make just one, customers are unlikely to blink at costly overnight delivery service.

“On Dec. 23, we’ll be shipping out for the next day. That is typical for us,” she said.

(Stave Puzzles has easy access to a shipper: The UPS depot is right next door to Stave’s building on Olcott Drive in Wilder.)

Sugarbush Farm’s Luce said she always has a ready response for customers who order right before Christmas, risking that the package will arrive after the holiday:

“Our tagline for people who call on Dec. 23 is, ‘Well, (you’re) probably not going to be eating cheese for Christmas dinner anyway.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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