STUTTGART, Germany - Even though Nov. 26 kicked off the holiday-shopping surge, the Stuttgart Regional Post Office crew started feeling the effects of online shopping weeks previously.

"We've seen an increase in mail since ... before Thanksgiving," said Sylvester Witherspoon, RPO supervisor here. "People are doing a lot of online shopping because of the euro exchange rate."

While Witherspoon does not have statistics to compare the mail load from previous years, "It feels higher this year because it started earlier," he said.

In three weeks time, from Nov. 3-24, the RPO at the Stuttgart Army Airfield processed 8,000 pieces of incoming mail. "This includes large boxes, sacks and letter trays," said Witherspoon.

But there's even more to that total; a mail sack contains multiple parcels - as many that fit - while a letter tray contains exactly 580 pieces.

That's a lot of mail to unload, scan and separate for the community and official mail rooms. So much so the crew is working Saturdays until the Christmas holiday ends.

"We get a 40-foot trailer every day," said Witherspoon. "Normally on Mondays we get two of these, especially this time of year. But now that we work on Saturdays for two and a half hours, this has decreased the mail on Mondays."

"The biggest challenge is personnel; as long as we have people we can move the mail in a timely manner," said Witherspoon, whose unit consists of only nine to 14 Soldiers and four civilians

"This year we have less people on the floor," noted Rich Berrios, a technical mail inspector. "But we have seven National Guardsmen that just arrived for two weeks."

However, the guardsmen, assigned to the 449th Personnel Services Battalion from Austin, Texas, are not postal specialists, meaning Berrios and others must explain the system and move the mail at the same time.

And move they do.

When the duty day ends for many here, Soldiers and civilians at the RPO are kicking into high gear. The trailers arrive from the Frankfurt Airport around 4 p.m. and are unloaded by hand. With frenzied movement, the once-empty warehouse begins filling up. Large boxes are placed on pallets, letters are pitched and the contents of mail sacks are separated into bins.

"Everything will be ready for mail call by 9 a.m. tomorrow," said Witherspoon, adding that at the same time, RPO is processing mail for worldwide distribution. Outgoing letters and parcels arrive from post offices and official mailrooms from across the community - and must be ready to go at 6 p.m.

Once RPO has processed the mail, the consolidated mail rooms distribute most of it.

"CMR 480 on Patch Barracks gets the majority of the mail," said Witherspoon. "CMR 445 on Panzer Kaserne gets the second highest amount."

"Our mail doubles during the holiday," added Brian Richter, Panzer CMR supervisor, whose new location has 1,500 mail boxes, almost double that of the old facility. But it does not slow things down. "Our goal is to have all the mail distributed by 2:30 p.m. when the customer service window opens."

To accommodate the extra postal, Stuttgart CMRs are open from 1-3 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 29, although the employees arrive much earlier. "We come in at 7:30 a.m., make a mail run, break it down and get it out," said Richter. "We can't hold mail here; it has to get out."