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Surge in online shopping brings holiday cheer - and misery in the package room

In the lobby of the 1500 Locust Apartments, the pile of boxes bearing labels like Amazon, H&M, StitchFix, and GNC teetered at shoulder height on a recent afternoon.

In the lobby of the 1500 Locust Apartments, concierge Phil Sisco adds to the pile of packages for tenants. Volume has doubled in the last year, a manager said.
In the lobby of the 1500 Locust Apartments, concierge Phil Sisco adds to the pile of packages for tenants. Volume has doubled in the last year, a manager said.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

In the lobby of the 1500 Locust Apartments, the pile of boxes bearing labels like Amazon, H&M, StitchFix, and GNC teetered at shoulder height on a recent afternoon.

At the Pepper Building in Southwest Center City, the parcels threatened to overtake the concierge desk.

And at West River Apartments, a 162-unit complex in the city's Wynnefield section, leasing consultant Whitney Chitty said there were as many as 50 packages coming in daily. In November, her office began sending out daily emails to notify residents that it had received packages - and that those not retrieved within a week would be returned to sender.

This is the holiday season as seen from the front desk: a relentless tide of gift deliveries that, combined with the steady rise in Amazon Prime subscriptions, Blue Apron orders, and Wayfair furniture purchases, is beginning to look a lot like a tsunami.

It has sent building managers scrambling for solutions, from high-tech locker systems to old-fashioned nagging. One national apartment chain announced it would no longer accept packages for tenants at all.

"It's one of the great challenges apartment operators everywhere are dealing with today. We're all trying to look for creative ways to do it," said Dean Holmes, chief operating officer at Philadelphia's Madison Apartment Group, which manages 32 housing complexes in Pennsylvania and more around the country.

The number of packages coming in to his buildings has nearly doubled in the last year alone, he said.

According to a 2014 survey of apartment managers by the National Multifamily Housing Council, one in four properties has invested in package-tracking software, and one in 10 has installed a locker system. A typical apartment complex received 100 packages a week, 200 during the holidays.

Those numbers are increasing every year, said Julie Smith, president of Bozzuto Management Co., which has 15 buildings in metro Philadelphia, including 1500 Locust and the Pepper Building.

Cyber Monday this year broke all online sales records and brought total online purchases from the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to $11 billion, according to Adobe Systems, which tracks sales at 4,500 sites.

The rippling effects of that e-boom have been seen everywhere from truck rentals (UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service have reportedly been renting U-Hauls to keep up with the increased pace of deliveries) to office buildings (Philadelphia Media Network's mail room, on a recent visit, was laden with a dozen Amazon packages and an HDTV).

It has also spawned start-ups like Fishbox, a new on-demand package-delivery service that targets rowhouse dwellers, who sometimes come home to find their packages have been stolen from their doorsteps.

Napoleon Suarez, 33, started in April in Fishtown and now has about 100 customers in 14 zip codes. Packages are delivered to a local mailbox store; he then brings them to clients' homes that evening. Some of them get packages daily; about a third of those are Amazon Prime customers. With the holidays approaching, business tripled, to the point that Suarez had to upgrade from his car to a truck.

"A lot of my customers are telling me that, since Fishbox came along, they've been doing all of their shopping exclusively online."

But the impact is particularly concentrated in the city's high-rises.

"It can be hundreds of packages on a daily basis," said Smith, who has noticed a surge in Amazon Prime deliveries and in ever-larger packages, as companies like Pottery Barn, West Elm, and Crate & Barrel entice shoppers with free shipping. "We're all sort of grappling with how to handle it, particularly at this time of year with the barrage of packages."

At one property, Bozzuto hired a part-time staffer just to log packages for a few hours a day. At others, they've installed Package Concierge, a system that lets parcel services securely deposit packages into digital lockers and allows residents to retrieve them with a code or key fob. In newer properties, companies are building out large package rooms complete with refrigerated storage for deliveries of flowers, groceries, and CSA shares.

"The challenge is actually getting people to pick up their packages," she said. "Concierges are working closely with the residents to ask them to pick up the package as soon as they can, or allow us to deliver it directly to their apartment, because we just don't have that much room to store these things."

Forest City Enterprises, a national company that has four high-rises in Philadelphia, began using an in-house social-media site two years ago to notify tenants about incoming packages. Eric Babroff, regional manager for the company, said that had helped.

His team devotes a lot of effort to encouraging residents to pick up packages within 24 hours, and not to order food or other perishables if they can't collect them immediately.

"The holidays come, and our volume doubles - and our room size for storage doesn't," he said. They've put size and weight limits on packages they'll accept. So, when a tenant ordered a set of four car tires, for example, the company had to say no.

For some, the outcome of this sea change in shopping patterns amounts to a lot of schlepping.

Mike Carroll, building manager at Westminster Arches in Center City since "before the Internet," said he used to deal with maybe five packages a week for 90 apartments. Now, it can be 40 a day.

Back in the day, he went ahead and put packages in residents' apartments because there's no space for a mail room.

"Over the years, we've stuck to that, but now it's really become quite a part of our day."

Reinhold Residential recently installed a digital locker system called Luxer One at its Old Quaker Building in University City, said marketing director Lynn Butts, who called it "a heaven-send." A feature of the system is that, after a week, it flags the package for return.

Post Bros. has installed digital lockers in its smaller buildings, too, said chief executive Mike Pestronk.

The company has set aside significant space for package rooms, complete with refrigerators, in projects like the 163-unit Goldtex Building in Callowhill, which gets about 50 packages a day, and the 626-unit Rittenhouse Hill in Germantown, where about 200 packages pile up daily.

"Our average renter is 29 and makes a pretty good amount of money, and they buy a lot of stuff online," Pestronk said. "We want to be customer-friendly."

Pestronk said locker companies had been offering cheap introductory rates.

But as deliveries continue to rise, some management companies expect they'll have to invest in either infrastructure or staff to accommodate the increase.

"It is an expense," said Bozzuto's Smith. "Package lockers can cost up to $10,000 for 40 to 60 lockers, so none of the systems are inexpensive. But it's really important to residents."