RALEIGH — Early in the pre-dawn hours Monday, the FedEx distribution facility on Atlantic Avenue roared to life.
Conveyor belts whirred, and employees began unloading the 12,000 boxes, tubes, canisters and crates that had come in for delivery across this region. With a methodical rhythm, 140 employees set about their work in an organized, orderly and determined fashion.
Despite the fact that Monday was the busiest day in FedEx's history, workers in Raleigh said you still have to take it one package at a time.
"We say bring it on," station manager Ken Harris said. "The more packages, the better."
FedEx estimated it would process 16 million shipments Monday, a 13 percent increase from the busiest day in 2009. In Raleigh, estimates were that workers would handle a total of 20,000 incoming and outgoing packages.
Industrywide, holiday shipments are expected to be up - a boon for businesses like FedEx and larger rival UPS and a sign that the economy may be slowly recovering. UPS has said it expects its overall holiday shipping to rise 7.5 percent over last year to roughly 430 million packages.
With retailers offering more free shipping than ever this year and online shopping continuing to surge in popularity, the shipping business is a closely watched indicator of holiday spending and the health of the broader economy.
Surveying the scene early Monday from a catwalk above the Raleigh FedEx work floor, Harris said his team of about 200 people was ready.
A 19-year company veteran, Harris said sorting the outgoing packages each morning usually takes as long as an hour and a half. Despite the increased holiday volume, the 100 FedEx trucks in service Monday still rolled out the door on time.
Later Monday evening, workers would repeat the process in reverse, processing about 8,000 outgoing packages.
"It's organized chaos, but there's definitely a method to the madness," he said.
A well-oiled machine
That method, it turns out, is the key to success.
Workers unload boxes from the large metal containers that are used for transport on airplanes. They sort them onto two conveyor belts: one that takes packages for delivery routes in Cary, West Raleigh, Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs; and the other with destinations in other areas.
The Raleigh distribution center serves areas as far north as the Virginia line, as far south as Fayetteville, as far east as Interstate 95, and as far west as Raleigh-Durham International Airport (There's another center in Durham).
Each package is turned as it comes down the line so the label faces up. Then a worker scans the bar code on the label, and the scanner gun generates a bright yellow sticker with the proper route number on it. That sticker goes on the package, which continues down the line.
Other workers then grab packages off the belt and sort them into individual trucks by route number.
Around the holidays, it's tough not to notice the Christmas gifts coming through, said Ernest Graham, a sorter and route driver from Knightdale who has worked for FedEx for 24 years. There are more residential deliveries, and more boxes from major retailers such as Amazon and Verizon.
"Like, see, this right here is Walmart," Tracy Thomas, Graham's co-worker, said holding up a box covered in green stars.
Workers like Thomas and Graham, who both work the sorting line and drive delivery trucks, can easily work 12-hour days this time of year, logging welcome overtime with extra pay. Most will clock in by 6 a.m. and may not complete their final deliveries until 6 p.m. or later.
Harris said he limits hiring additional help and tries to give overtime to existing employees. It makes life in December frantic, but workers say that comes with the job.
"When my kids were little, I used to have my Christmas shopping done and the tree up by Thanksgiving because they knew mom had to work," said Denise Sanchez, a mother of two from Wake Forest who has worked for FedEx for 20 years.
The Christmas spirit
Still, despite long hours, there are perks to the job, Sanchez said.
"There's always that one customer who's waiting on that package that's going to be their Christmas gift, and you want them to have it," she said. "Sometimes they're waiting for you at the door."
Despite the emphasis on getting packages to their destinations on time, there is also a strict emphasis on not rushing too much because workers who are harried are more prone to injury.
"Sometimes when things are too hectic, that's when you have to pump your brakes," said Antonio James, who is in his 11th year at FedEx.
On occasion, the fancy scanner guns go down, and employees have to rely on the institutional knowledge in the room - before the computerized systems, employees sorted packages by route using nothing but their memory of the area's geography.
"When we lose a conveyor belt, we have to go back to the way we used to do it, which is to push these packages down the belt," Harris said.
But on Monday, all went smoothly. The fleet of FedEx trucks rolled out the doors and onto Atlantic Avenue just as the morning sunrise reached a bright red hue.
Turning right and left onto the road, they bounced off into rush hour, packages and holiday wishes in tow.