When Seattle bicycle messenger Josh Buford first heard about the opportunity to deliver for Amazon Prime Now, he remembers being skeptical because of his own admitted misgivings about the giant retailer.
But after being hired on as a contract rider with Fleetfoot Messenger Service, Buford grew to appreciate the hard work of trekking packages and food across the city in a timely manner. And he liked having a hand in shaping how the service was evolving.
For almost a year, the 29-year-old Seattle native operated under the assumption that the bike couriers he worked alongside were providing a valuable service to Amazon and that Amazon in turn was pleased to have them.
But that changed last week, when Amazon abruptly shut down the program. Days after being let go from his contract job with little notice, along with as many as 40 other bicycle couriers, Buford told GeekWire that, while he can appreciate Amazon’s need to make business decisions, he’s left feeling troubled by what he referred to as “scary” and “heartless” tactics.
“I already knew they had a knack for trying to take over as many markets as they possibly could get their hands on,” Buford said, alluding to speculation that Amazon will eventually launch its own bike delivery program. “It’s pretty obvious that that really is their game plan. It’s kind of troubling and little bit scary just how far they’re willing to go. … I’d say ruthless would be the best term for it.”
While his opinion may be colored in part by having been just laid off, Buford reiterated that during his time delivering for Prime Now he liked that Amazon was being “open-minded” in its use of bike couriers in its quest for the best customer experience.
“It seemed like they legitimately give what they’re promising to their customers — speedy delivery, friendly service, things like that,” Buford said.
Prime Now is just a year and a half old. After launching in New York City in December 2014, the service debuted in Seattle last August. The $7.99 one-hour service and free two-hour service (for Prime members who pay $99 a year) has now expanded to dozens of cities. Through the app or on the web in Seattle, shoppers can purchase items from Amazon, PCC supermarkets, Uwajimaya supermarket and participating Amazon restaurants.
As GeekWire reported in September, the bicycle delivery work was never going to be easy and the expectations were extremely high. Also, the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t was going to take some time.
Amazon didn’t offer much insight when asked how the company felt looking back on its use of the Fleetfoot couriers in Seattle, what led to the decision to stop using them and what’s next for Prime Now here and elsewhere.
“We continue to evaluate and test our operations for Prime Now in order to best serve customers with superfast delivery,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman said in a statement.
Buford said he finds it hard to imagine what the service, at least in Seattle, looks like without bicycles. He said couriers worked during the busiest times of the day in the most congested parts of the city.
Talking on a sidewalk in the South Lake Union neighborhood — the heart of what couriers referred to as “Amazonville” — Buford recalled the countless trips he made delivering alcohol and pet supplies to employees on the ever-expanding campus.
“You have such a large influx of people, there really isn’t any foreseeable plan to alleviate that in the next few years,” Buford said of Seattle’s traffic woes. “It was nice having something unique that kind of solved a problem” he added, regarding the ease of moving e-commerce by bike.
It’s a sentiment shared by Buford’s former co-worker, Cade Beyer, a 28-year-old messenger who started riding for Prime Now via Fleetfoot in February.
“It seemed like a pretty sweet set-up and made sense for them, especially with the high volume of deliveries and demand for the service,” Beyer told GeekWire. “Using bikes to handle [deliveries] in the core of Seattle makes so much more sense — there’d be that many fewer cars, less traffic, more efficient, better for the environment. It seemed like we were handling it fine, everything was moving, everything was being able to be delivered.”
Beyer shared the same initial doubts about Amazon and the use of bike couriers that Buford had before he signed up.
“At first I was skeptical. When they first rolled it out last fall, I knew a few people that were doing it and, my kind of the impression was, ‘Be careful because they might pull it.’ And then it continued for months and months and they kept hiring people.”
At hourly rates of $12 to $15 an hour plus tips, it was hard for the young messengers to resist the pull toward what could amount to a longterm gig — outdoors where they loved to be.
For Beyer, the 25 hours he was riding proved better than the increasingly sporadic legal messenger work he had been doing. And he liked getting out of the downtown core, even up to Capitol Hill to make restaurant deliveries.
For a guy who could be lugging 40 or 50 pounds on his bike, Beyer still thought “it seemed like things were moving forward instead of backwards.” Until last week.
“It was absolutely a surprise” getting laid off, Beyer said. “It seemed like we were doing better than ever. They just hired even more people, seemed like they were happy with what we were doing; we were doing a lot of work.”
In fact, Beyer initially thought that maybe there were too many couriers for the work that needed to be done.
“They wanted to have 20 people in the evenings and 10 people during the day every day,” Beyer said. “When I first started was it seemed like there were too many people working. We probably could have handled this — when they said they wanted 20 people in the evening it didn’t really make any sense to me. It seemed like an excessive amount. But at the same time we were doing more work every week than we were doing the week before that.”
It remains to be seen where Amazon will shift the workload that was carried by bicycles. The message couriers received last week indicated that cars would be handling all deliveries, but Amazon didn’t confirm that. The company’s Uber-like Amazon Flex program could be one option. GeekWire reported earlier this year on the program that relies on independent contractors to make deliveries.
Standing next to his bike, wearing a large messenger bag on his back — free of food or packages — Buford said he wasn’t out to badmouth the company that took a shot with bicycle couriers. He knows he can find another job doing something.
But he doesn’t like the perception that he and his fellow couriers were somehow expendable because of the work they chose.
“The idea that every single messenger is just a young guy that’s fresh out of high school or something and is just doing it off to the side isn’t reality,” Buford said. “We were hired to do full-time work and many of us have kids and families.
“And to see a company care so little about the people that they’ve had a decently long relationship with — and a good relationship like they had with us — [end it] in an instant, you know regardless of how it may affect you … it was a bit heartless to hear.”