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An Amazon courier in Seattle.
An Amazon bicycle courier on the streets of Seattle. (GeekWire Photo, Jacob Demmitt)

Amazon has a growing list of seemingly magical new delivery services, promising to bring household items, high-tech gadgets and even dinner to your door in less than an hour. Customers don’t see all the behind-the-scenes logistics required to make these deliveries happen, but people involved in the process say the reason it seems so impossibly great is that it is, in fact, almost impossible. 

Especially for the company’s fleet of bicycle couriers.

Amazon has been in the spotlight recently for its unapologetically high standards for its workforce — standards that apply to everyone from software engineers in Seattle to warehouse workers across the country. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those same expectations extend to the $15-per-hour bicycle couriers that the company uses to make deliveries for its Prime Now and AmazonFresh services.

primenowBut for some of the couriers who have gone to work for the e-commerce giant, it has been a rude awakening.

GeekWire has spoken with four current and past riders, as well as their managers and veterans of the courier industry. Many more riders declined to comment, but those who did talk said they’ve never experienced anything quite like Amazon. Orders are heavier than normal loads, and they require quicker delivery times and near-perfect execution, say the experienced couriers, some of whom did not want their names used because they still deliver packages for the company.

Everything is computerized. Everything is tracked. Everything is analyzed for absolute efficiency. And whenever something goes wrong, there always has to be an explanation.

Riders are assigned a numeric score that Amazon calls the “Perfect Delivery Rate,” or PDR, describing how well they meet expectations — similar to the systems the company uses to track warehouse workers. Show up at a delivery destination a little too early or late, and you’re going to get docked.

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An Amazon delivery rider. (Photo courtesy IndyStealth)

Matt Fay, a Seattle rider who said he was fired after an argument with Amazon managers over what he called unfair allocation of tips, has been a courier for 16 years. He said the company’s standards for that ideal delivery are simply “physically impossible.” There are a lot of unknowns in the courier business — like rain and unmanned front desks inside buildings. Amazon’s system doesn’t account for any of that, Fay said.

A rider for another courier contractor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since he still delivers for Amazon, said some of the fastest couriers he knows have the lowest PDR scores, simply because they take the more challenging loads.

He says a big part of the problem is that Amazon is bulldozing its way into courier services, but it doesn’t understand the industry it’s trying to disrupt or the quirks of the cities it’s expanding into.

“Everywhere they’re losing money and everywhere they’re trying to cut costs by cutting staff,” he said. “Basically, they’re making the entire day a stress situation and then going back to management and asking why the Perfect Delivery Rate isn’t higher.”

AmazonFresh workers load a cart for delivery in Seattle.
AmazonFresh workers load a cart for delivery in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo, Jacob Demmitt.)

Daniel Velazquez, another Seattle rider who lost his job when Amazon switched contractors, said he used to work the 3 a.m. until noon shift for AmazonFresh.

He remembers one morning when the truck with all his 6 a.m. deliveries didn’t show up until 5:20 a.m. Not only did that leave him just 40 minutes to finish everything, but he had received 12 orders that day. Usually, he’s supposed to get eight for a two-hour window.

“I had to do my best and then find out later they were asking why things were late,” Velazquez said.

Some of the issues are just inherent to taking a job as a bike messenger. It’s always going to be challenging work, requiring couriers to rush around town. But problems arise when you combine those jobs with Amazon’s signature brand of perfection.

An Amazon spokesman offered this comment when GeekWire reached out for this story: “With everything we do, safety is our number one priority. AmazonFresh and Prime Now bike messengers do a fantastic job for our customers and our customers love the service. The bike messengers typically deliver two to three orders per hour.”

GeekWire visited the delivery loading area near its Seattle headquarters so many times in the course of reporting that the company told riders to call security the next time we showed up.

Setting a high bar

The situation is characteristic of the broader issues facing the growing e-commerce company. Amazon sets a high bar, and then does what it takes to reach it. Some workers say that creates an unhealthy work environment, while others say that’s what makes the company so great.

But Charles Moss, who has been in the courier business for 45 years and now runs operations for Seattle-based ManOnTheSpot, said Amazon may have underestimated just how difficult this particular business can be. He said there are too many variables to guarantee that 100 percent of packages will arrive within an hour. You can minimize misses through perfecting your system and anticipating the unexpected — but that takes years to figure out.

“They don’t have the experience,” he said. “They’ll learn it over time through their mistakes because they have the capital resources. … It [one-hour grocery delivery] is realistic — if you know what you’re doing.”

Bicycles may be new for the company, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Amazon, says Terry Drayton, who founded the early grocery delivery business HomeGrocer.com before taking the company public in 2000. He said people take for granted many of the ways Amazon has streamlined its supply chain to pioneer new services. People would have considered even next day delivery impossible, until Amazon made it happen.

But whenever you’re trying something new, growing pains are part of the process.

“I think the Holy Grail for Amazon is same-day delivery,” Drayton said. “It’s the only thing brick-and-mortar can do that they can’t. So I think you’ll see them relentlessly test and experiment to try to figure it out.”

Image by Atomic Taco, via Flickr.
Image by Atomic Taco, via Flickr.

Amazon was a major investor in HomeGrocer.com, and Drayton said he’s still a big supporter of the company. Multiple Amazon executives have invested in Livible, Drayton’s latest startup. He called Amazon’s top managers “logistics gods,” and said he has complete faith that one-hour delivery will one day be another common service we all take for granted, with Amazon as the recognized pioneer.

But it’s certainly not easy.

Even on the financial side of things, Drayton said he’s willing to bet Amazon will have to reshuffle the business and how much it charges for deliveries over time. At some point, he said, you have to ask the question, do you really need this delivered right now?

Drayton explained that HomeGrocer had to require minimum purchase amounts in order to turn a profit, and he’s not quite sure how all the startups he sees out there these days make it work with such small orders.

Hitting the wall

At least one courier company says it has hit the wall after working with Amazon on its bicycle delivery ambitions.

Seattle’s IndyStealth Logistics tells GeekWire it will no longer do business with the e-commerce giant, following months of what IndyStealth describes as abusive negotiations and broken promises.

Among its accusations, IndyStealth says it was told to hire dozens of riders to handle AmazonFresh and Prime Now deliveries in Seattle. But that number was cut in half several times until just a few riders were given shifts by the time it started working for AmazonFresh earlier this year. As for the Prime Now contract, Amazon ended up going with another company.

Within months, Amazon pulled the contract almost entirely and gave it to a competing out-of-town courier service. IndyStealth says it had already invested in special bikes built for Amazon’s unusually large loads and sank countless unpaid hours into designing a delivery system that would get the job done.

Now IndyStealth, which has made internal corporate-type deliveries for Amazon since 1996, says it won’t take any business from the company or any other Jeff Bezos-owned enterprise, including Blue Origin.

These custom AmazonFresh delivery bikes were used by IndyStealth to deliver groceries for the company. (Photo courtesy IndyStealth)
These custom AmazonFresh delivery bikes were used by IndyStealth to deliver groceries for the company. (Photo courtesy IndyStealth)

“Amazon can treat their people as disposable as they want, but we draw the line at treating our employees as disposable,” IndyStealth President Dave Eck wrote in a statement to GeekWire. “They’ll eventually find that building relationships out of dishonesty is counterproductive, and we simply don’t have the time to work with people like that.”

Amazon Prime Now alcohol delivery
Amazon’s Prime Now app offers one-hour delivery for $7.99 and two-hour delivery for free to Amazon Prime members.

AmazonFresh, the company’s grocery delivery service, is now available in five large markets while Prime Now, its one-hour delivery service, is in 12 cities with new ones added regularly. For each new dot on the map it covers, the company designs a somewhat unique system to handle its deliveries.

Amazon started using bike messengers in New York City last December. But when it brought that same model to Seattle, it realized pretty quickly it would need to upgrade to bikes with small electric assist motors to help power up the hills here.

One rider tells us he regularly gets off his bike so he can push and use the motor to get up hills when he has a particularly large load.

Bicycles haven’t replaced Amazon’s other delivery methods, but instead are just another piece of its growing delivery network. You still see large AmazonFresh trucks around Seattle, and now Amazon has also started using drivers in their own cars, some of which used to drive for Uber.

Characteristic of Amazon, the rapid delivery services are cheap and absolutely reliable. I’ve had a positive experience every time I’ve used Prime Now — with one rider making his way across town with an unusually large package of paper towels I ordered recently.

Time and time again, Amazon seems to pull off the impossible. One rider who recently delivered dinner to my front door in 37 minutes said he rode from the Queen Anne neighborhood, downtown to get the food and then up to my apartment on top of Capitol Hill — all before my french fries got cold. I have an Amazon Prime account, so that service was free with an optional $5 tip. In Seattle, those who pay for a $99-per-year Amazon Prime membership can now get one-hour restaurant delivery for free, or free two-hour delivery of other items. For $7.99 you can get all your items in one hour.

AmazonFresh offers scheduled same-day deliveries of a wide variety of grocery and household items.

These services are all part of Amazon’s strategy to dominate the e-commerce industry by being able to deliver more items than anyone else, faster than anyone else for cheaper than anyone else.

The mission requires a lot of experimentation — and things don’t always go  well on the first try.

A delivery rider in New York told GeekWire about the time someone ordered a 90-pound load through Prime Now with one-hour delivery. Amazon had already reduced the number of riders working that day to improve cost efficiency, so that meant there weren’t any cars available when the big order came in.

But being late just wasn’t an option.

The rider said it became an all-out panic as the load was split between whoever was around to help out, including dispatchers on foot. The crew eventually hit the road, traveling more than two miles through Manhattan rush hour traffic — some on bikes, others carrying 30-pound bags on their backs.

By Amazon’s standard Prime Now rates, that delivery would have cost $7.99.

“Amazon is so customer-oriented they will seemingly bend over backward to get packages to the customer on time,” one rider said. “But it’s not them that’s bending over backward. It’s the messengers.”

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