Local firms try to keep business on the move Some companies turn to other couriers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Business section article Monday incorrectly reported the number of comic books that Diamond Comic Distributors will ship to its clients. The company will ship 25,000 bundles.

The Sun regrets the errors.

With 4,000 comic book retailers around the country expecting new super-hero tales this week, Diamond Comic Distributors couldn't let the nationwide United Parcel Service strike slow it down.

"We've become a mini-UPS overnight," said Steve Geppi, president and CEO of the Timonium-based company, which has rented a fleet of trucks to ship 25,000 comic books to 25 major cities where it has clients. Geppi said he expects Diamond to reach 85 percent of its clientele.

"In this industry, comics are like fresh produce," he said. "They must be in stores before the ink dries."

For comic book distributors, toy stores, investment houses and hospitals around the Baltimore area who rely on UPS to ship and deliver their merchandise, documents and medical supplies, the first day of the strike was viewed generally as a major inconvenience, not a catastrophe.

Many businesses couldn't afford the $40,000 price tag Diamond Comics will incur for its contingency plan. Instead, they simply ordered extra inventory, rushed time-sensitive mail last week or signed up with another courier company when the UPS labor negotiations were looking dire.

Now other couriers like Federal Express, Roadway Package System and DHL Worldwide Express are delivering and picking up goods from regular UPS customers like Johns Hopkins Hospital and T. Rowe Price Associates Inc.

The Teamsters union began a strike at UPS yesterday after negotiators failed to agree on a contract with the largest U.S. package carrier. The dispute hinges on pay, benefits and job security.

The union represents about 190,000 package sorters, loaders and drivers nationwide and about 1,500 in the Baltimore area.

"While we were at the table, we asked the company to consider the customers, but they ignored them," said a striker at Teamsters Local Union 355 who didn't want to be named.

"We didn't want this to happen. We feel sorry for all the customers," he said. "But we stand united in doing whatever we need to do to get a better contract."

But if the labor dispute goes on for too long, business owners and officials say, they fear the worst.

"We're just sitting back and waiting," said Bill Sell, shipping and receiving clerk at T. Rowe Price in downtown Baltimore, which sends about 40 packages a day through UPS.

"We're hoping the strike will be over in the next day or two so we can resume with UPS, otherwise I'm expecting major problems, as in slow-downs and tie-ups," he said.

At Mumbles and Squeaks toy shop in Ellicott City yesterday, owner Frank DiPietro's primary concern was when he'll receive his next shipment of Beanie Babies, those popular beanbag toys that stores can't keep in stock for long.

"I'll chuckle through this for about a week. After that, everyone is going to have to get serious," DiPietro said.

Yesterday, DiPietro received about a dozen calls from customers looking for Beanie Babies. He told each caller that he probably won't see another shipment until the UPS strike ends.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital, items such as biopsy specimens, syringes and needles will be delivered by courier, and administrators at the hospital have been advised to prioritize their mail and send it via e-mail or fax if possible.

"In a pinch, there are options available," said Marc Kusinitz, hospital spokesman. "The show will go on. We are not panicking."

To deal with the expected package overflow, the Baltimore District of the U.S. Postal Service set aside a temporary parcel acceptance unit at 1000 E. Lexington St. for individuals and businesses to ship five or more packages.

As of late yesterday afternoon, no one had dropped off packages there, officials said. Even at the main post office on East Fayette Street, where customers are limited to mailing four parcels, there hadn't been much of a crowd, said Baltimore area spokeswoman Helen Skillman.

"It's business as usual," she said. "The traffic may be a bit heavier than usual but there haven't been long lines."

Meanwhile, Federal Express Corp. officials said the company usually handles 2.8 million packages a day, but expected to handle up to 4 million packages yesterday.

The company imposed limits including cutting drop-off times by two hours, suspending money-back guarantees and declining new accounts.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in package volume and calls about shipping alternatives," said spokeswoman Shirlee Clark in Memphis, Tenn.

Said Diamond Comics' Geppi: "UPS has been very good to us through the years, but this is a big mess. I hope we aren't talking weeks here."

Tips during the UPS strike

Ask retailers which carrier they use. If UPS is their primary carrier, ask what arrangements have been made to compensate during the strike.

Ask how long delivery should take.

Don't depend on receiving a delivery on time. While other carriers are trying to fill in the gaps from the UPS strike, there is a glut of merchandise to transport.

If possible, wait to place a delivery order. The first days of a strike are usually hectic. Let retailers develop alternative shipping arrangements.

UPS competitors have little room to take up the slack. Here are their plans and ways to contact them:

Federal Express: Is not taking new customers, but will accept packages in its drop-off boxes. Drop-off box pickup will be two hours earlier than normal. FedEx has discontinued its money-back guarantee for on-time service. FedEx information available at 800-463-3339 or www.fedex.com

Emery Worldwide: Says it will try to accommodate any customers who meet its market niche, business-to-business delivery of packages 5 pounds and heavier. Information at 800-443-6379 or www.emeryworld.com.

RPS: Is serving only its current clients instead of risking its service by overloading the system. Information at 800-762-3725 or www.shiprps.com.

Airborne Express: Will take extra packages from companies it now does business with but which also use UPS. The difference: The extra packages will travel by ground, and Airborne Express will not guarantee a delivery date. Airborne will not take any new customers. Information at 800-247-2676 or www.airborne.com.

U.S. Postal Service: Limiting number of parcels taken at local post offices to four per customer per visit. Those customers depositing more than four parcels will be asked to set up an appointment to deposit their mailings at designated parcel drop-off locations. Regular mail delivery should not be affected. Information at www.usps.gov. A toll free number is being set up.

DHL Worldwide: Not accepting any new domestic business from shippers who do not already have an existing DHL account, but is taking new international business. Doubling flights for some planes and adding some temporary aircraft and part-time workers to help with extra business. Information at (800) CALL-DHL (225-5345) or www.dhl.com.

Pub Date: 8/05/97

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