retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times has a remarkable piece this morning, produced in partnership with nonprofit Pro Publica, that looks at the often unacknowledged costs of Amazon’s deep and unwavering commitment to making sure people get their orders faster and faster.

Here’s how the Times frames the story:

“In its relentless push for e-commerce dominance, Amazon has built a huge logistics operation in recent years to get more goods to customers’ homes in less and less time. As it moves to reduce its reliance on legacy carriers like United Parcel Service, the retailer has created a network of contractors across the country that allows the company to expand and shrink the delivery force as needed, while avoiding the costs of taking on permanent employees.

“But Amazon’s promise of speedy delivery has come at a price, one largely hidden from public view. An investigation by ProPublica identified more than 60 accidents since June 2015 involving Amazon delivery contractors that resulted in serious injuries, including 10 deaths. That tally is most likely a fraction of the accidents that have occurred: Many people don’t sue, and those who do can’t always tell when Amazon is involved, court records, police reports and news accounts show.”

The story notes that “Amazon won’t say what percentage of packages its contractors deliver, but industry analysts say the share is growing fast. Researchers at Cowen estimate that in 2015, UPS and the United States Postal Service handled 91 percent of Amazon’s domestic deliveries, while contractors and DHL had less than 3 percent. Amazon’s network of contractors will handle 23 percent of its American deliveries this year, Cowen estimates, and 43 percent by 2024.”

And, while “Amazon argues that it bears no legal responsibility for the human toll, it maintains a tight grip on how the delivery drivers do their jobs.” And, it is equally vigilant about structuring contracts so it has plausible deniability.

You can read the story here or here .
KC's View:
Am I willing to give up next-day shipping?

Good question.

The fact is that we’ve all fallen in love with fast and free shipping that has to put stresses on the system in ways most of us on the receiving end cannot possibly imagine. I’ve talked to people who used to deliver packages for a living, and they’ve told me about how hard they have to work (and not just for Amazon, by the way), usually not being paid for their time but rather for their achieved results. This normally might not be a bad concept, except that these drivers are piloting vehicles that can be multi-ton weapons if they get tired or careless or frustrated.

The argument here, on all sorts of levels, long has been that nobody really knows what anything costs. This is just another example … one about which we ought to think a lot harder, because the costs are unacceptable. There are business issues, and there are moral issues, and there are business issues that have a moral weight that needs to be considered.

Better question: Am I willing to give up next-day shipping if it will save lives?

There’s only one acceptable answer to that question. But we need to ask and answer that question in a cultural context, thinking about the difference between what we need and want, and he degree to which we need to hold our institutions - even, maybe even especially - high-flying businesses that would prefer that the message be, “Nothing to see here. Just move on.”