The Technology of Christmas

By Donovan Makus

 

Whoever called winter “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” clearly wasn’t a student. Term papers, lab books, and assignment deadlines may have passed, or you may still be desperately typing; in any case, the Christmas cheer is hard to embrace when you are sweating under deadlines. Lost in a sea of due dates, it is easy to become absorbed in our schoolwork or studying for the dreaded finals that move ever closer. However, a brief look out the window should be enough to convince each of us that it is, indeed, the Christmas season. When we are consumed by the business of Christmas and the end of the semester, we often miss opportunities or lose sight of our surroundings as our world shrinks down to home and school, and in this, we fail to realize how amazing it is that our modern Christmas runs smoothly as far as technology goes. Underneath the decorations, behind the obnoxious and seemingly endless cycle of Mariah Carey and Wham! that invade the airways, and finally, through the presents underneath the tree, a vast web of technology powers and sustains our modern Christmas celebrations.

Technology and Christmas go hand in hand like cell phones and chargers. ‘Tis the season for the latest technology, or at least, that’s what the ads (granting a joyful reprieve from the worst of Christmas music) tell us. However, the technology I’m discussing here isn’t associated with Christmas morning, Christmas Eve, holiday joy, or new toys under the Christmas tree. Instead, it is one of the cold, impersonal science of logistics. While deep down we may still want to believe in Santa and his improbable globe-spanning one-night logistics wonder, by now we should know Santa’s sleigh is actually a delivery van, running on a careful schedule that delivers our presents. While two thirds of Canadians still consider brick and mortar stores their primary Christmas shopping outlet, the number of people ordering Christmas gifts online increases each year as more and more people embrace the digital revolution. This shift is greatest among younger shoppers our age, but nowadays, even Grandma is able to order her grandchildren’s gifts online. We still lag behind Americans in embracing online shopping, which may be related to the sometimes painful shipping costs associated with Canadian online shopping, but we’re quickly catching up. Given our lack of time, it can be easy to forget the technology that closes the gap from the checkout “click” to your front door, and the marvel of modern organization it demonstrates.

During the 2017 Christmas season, Canada Post set a record by delivering 1.8 million packages. This impressive record was further enhanced by the fact this is a single-day delivery record, specifically December 4th. In total, Canada Post delivered 62 million parcels in the 2017 Christmas season, passing the record from the previous year of 54 million. These packages were distributed throughout the holiday season, with over a million parcels delivered a day spanning from mid-November to Christmas Day. Given that Canada Post is just one of the parcel delivery companies operating in Canada (although it is the largest), this is an amazing logistical feat, and one that deserves our admiration even if the ongoing mail strikes may end up throwing us off a bit this year.

Coping with this rush of packages isn’t easy. It requires predicting notoriously fickle consumer demands ahead of time, a task far more difficult than predicting a white Christmas in Edmonton. Canada Post added more than 1,000 employees for the peak season as well as additional delivery vehicles with private companies, swelling their personnel numbers in anticipation of the Christmas rush. Yet, thanks to the power of networking, modern parcel services are going farther than merely adding more staff, vehicles, and trying to predict where to put them. They’re now embracing the power of big data to guide their every move. The new field of telematics, which is the integration of communications, location, and transport technology, has been fully embraced by parcel companies seeking maximum utility from their fleets and personnel. Now companies can track individual vehicles in real-time and direct them for the maximum time and fuel efficiency. This technology also has the advantage, at least for the company, of acting as a backseat driver, policing their delivery driver’s speeds and driving patterns, leading to fewer accidents, reduced insurance costs, and less wear and tear on vehicles. In the future, parcel companies will likely take technological aided delivery even further, progressing to autonomous delivery systems, be they in the form of Amazon’s Drones, or driverless delivery vehicles with parcel delivery robots. Through fully embracing technology like telematics, delivery companies can ensure your packages are arriving when you expect them to arrive, but the path from warehouse to doorstep is only the final step of the Christmas technological chain.  

Between clicking “purchase” online and the parcel company accepting the package is a vast logistical network. Retailers start preparing for Christmas well in advance, with some retailers stockpiling what would normally be 3 months’ worth of stock. Traditionally, retailers tried to shape demand through advertisements and stockpile the obvious Christmas purchases. Today, thanks to the power of big data, retailers are embracing predictive stocking, trying to avoid ordering too much stock and being forced to store it, or worse yet, ordering too little stock and running out of the “Tickle Me Elmos” or “Hatchimals” of this Christmas season. The extra stock and the need to process it places additional demands on retailers for warehouse space, but again, technology can come to the rescue. Through warehouse logistic systems, and in particular, automated systems, existing warehouse space can be utilized more efficiently, and the gifts can safely make their way from the warehouse to the shipping terminal, which makes for a more efficient system for everyone, both for online and brick-and-mortar shoppers.  

Hopefully, as you take some well-deserved time off over Christmas this year, you will have some time to relax and enjoy the time with friends and family. Looking at the tree on Christmas morning or Eve can fill us with a sense of Christmas cheer, and I wouldn’t want to ruin that. Yet in the days before or after, Christmas represents a great opportunity to reflect on the amazing integration of technology into our modern world, reaching deep into something as seemingly timeless as the holidays, even if we may tell our younger relatives it was Santa who delivered their packages.

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