Package theft in her Chicago apartment building is so rampant, Sara Costello says, that she has begun rerouting all of her online orders to work: potting soil, knitting kits, glittered wigs and the occasional bottle of sage-scented spray.
It's secure — and practical, the actor and comedian says — at least until it comes time to lug her things home on the train.
"Sometimes I'm just sitting on the Red Line with a wig in my hand, or potting soil in my backpack, thinking, 'This is so weird,' " Costello said. "I thought Amazon was supposed to make my life easier?"
Online shopping has been heralded as the ultimate modern-day convenience, but in at least one respect, it can be anything but. Packages are stolen, boxes pile up in the rain and many residential buildings — particularly those built back when people actually had to go to a store to shop — are running out of room for the never-ending barrage of deliveries.
The challenge has given rise to an entire industry that is racing to come up with technology that would make deliveries easier and more secure. Retail giants are also getting involved: Jet.com recently installed smart-lock technology in 1,000 apartment buildings in New York to allow delivery workers access to buildings when residents aren't home. Amazon.com — which accounts for more than 40 percent of online sales — offers a similar service to Prime members. The company is also installing locker systems in apartment buildings across the country. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
"People have this overwhelming sense of fear that their stuff won't be there," said David Echegoyen, vice president of marketing for Jet.com, which is owned by Walmart. "That's been the big question for us: How can we remove friction from the e-commerce experience, and in particular, with deliveries?"
This holiday season is expected to be a particularly busy one for the nation's carriers. The U.S. Postal Service says its expects to deliver 850 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, a 10 percent increase from last year. (That comes out to an average of more than 20 million packages a day.) UPS expects its holiday load to rise 5 percent, to 750 million packages, this holiday season, while FedEx says it's planning for up to 400 million parcels.
The number of parcels shipped worldwide has increased 48 percent in the past two years, as shoppers look to the Internet as a replacement for routine trips to the store, according to data from technology firm Pitney Bowes. People are buying products as varied as single tubes of toothpaste and grand pianos online, creating new problems for apartment and condominium buildings — especially in dense, urban areas.
"This is one of the biggest puzzles in the apartment industry," said Rick Haughey, a vice president at the National Multifamily Housing Council, a Washington nonprofit group. "How do you manage hundreds of packages every day?"
Some building managers are installing package lockers, smart-lock technology and front-door cameras, while others have converted janitorial closets, basements and even gyms into makeshift package rooms. In extreme cases, apartment companies are banning packages altogether. The Cairo, a 169-unit apartment building in Northwest Washington, has two full-time porters who deliver packages to residents. A few miles away, managers at the Meridian at Mt. Vernon Triangle have outfitted the building's gym with dozens of package lockers, where residents can punch in special-access codes to pick up deliveries around the clock. Other properties around the country now rely on a service called Fetch, which collects packages and delivers them to residents once they're home.
"People are buying everything online — even furniture, which means our offices end up looking like West Elm warehouses," said Luanne McNulty, vice president of ZRS Management, an Orlando-based property-management company. "Sorting all of that out is easily a full-time job."
There are days when Hillary Greenwald can barely make it to her desk.
The apartment-leasing office in Washington where she works is stacked high with other people's boxes: TVs, packages from Kohl's and Madewell, and dozens of Amazon deliveries. They come in by the truckful and sometimes sit for days until residents come for them.
"Some days I'm crawling over packages — they'll be all around my desk, on the tables, on the shelves," said Greenwald, the manager of Gelmarc Towers, a 1950s building that has 166 units. "It can feel like an obstacle course."
The building, in the Kalorama neighborhood, is renovating the leasing office to add shelving and storage space for residents' deliveries. But there is only so much they can do, she says: The lobby is small, and there are no extra closets or parking spaces to convert into mailrooms.
Two years ago, Camden Property Trust made waves when it announced that it would no longer accept packages at its 169 properties across the country. The company said it was a financial decision meant to free its workers from hours of sorting, managing and retrieving deliveries every day. Package volume, the company said, was increasing 50 percent year over year.
"Ultimately, this was going to eat our lunch," Keith Oden, president of Camden, told the Wall Street Journal. A spokeswoman for Camden declined to comment for this story. (The policy does not appear to have deterred residents: Occupancy rates at Camden properties continue to hover around 96 percent.)
The popularity of Amazon Prime — which offers two-day shipping on most items — means people will place online orders for a single bar of soap or ballpoint pen, said Georgianna Oliver, who founded Package Concierge five years ago. She spent a year researching the delivery industry before creating a line of package lockers for residential buildings. The lockers — which come equipped with built-in cameras and digital touch screens — notify residents when they have a package and give them a one-time pin code to access it.
"Today's customer wants self-service," she said. "They don't want to have to talk to somebody to get a package, especially if they're getting something in the mail multiple times a week."
Package Concierge processes 30,000 packages a day. Larger apartment buildings have as many as 500 lockers, while a student housing building at the University of Southern California has more than 700 lockers in one location.
"Over the past few years, it's gone from 'maybe this locker is a good idea' to 'we have to do this,' " Oliver said.
But lockers can be costly and at times impractical. The units, apartment managers said, typically cost at least $30,000 and require ample space, as well as wireless Internet access and electricity. And, well, this is a fast-growing problem.
"You can retrofit a building, but by the time you install 100 lockers, you'll end up needing 150," McNulty of ZRS Management said.
Recently, Ali Pressgrove returned from a three-day work trip to find that someone had rummaged through her online deliveries. The latest item to be stolen from her San Francisco apartment building: a lint roller from Amazon.
"I am at my wit's end," said Pressman, 26, who works for a hotel booking company. "I rely on delivery as I don't have large amounts of time or energy to run every single errand, especially here when it takes ages to get from A to B."
Sometimes, she says, she has valuable items sent a nearby vintage shop, where employees sign for her deliveries. Other times, she obsessively tracks her packages online to make sure she's waiting at the door when they arrive.
"I have a really nice handmade pair of boots coming soon," she said. "I really don't want to have to panic until they're here, but I definitely will."
Roughly 35 percent of Americans say they have packages sent to an address other than their home to prevent theft, according to a survey by Shorr Packaging. FedEx now allows customers to reroute their packages to nearby pharmacies and grocery store, while UPS offers similar pickup services at neighborhood shops, delis and dry-cleaning establishments, which often stay open late and on evenings for easy access.
"More and more customers want alternatives to residential deliveries," said Randy Scarborough, vice president of retail marketing for FedEx. "Maybe it's package theft concerns, or not wanting everyone to see what they're buying. For whatever reason, preferences are changing."