I felt like Santa Claus earlier this month — the Amazon.com version, at least.
I’ve spent the past few weekends trying my hand as a driver for Amazon Flex, the company’s Uber-esque platform that lets everyday people like you and me deliver packages with our own cars.
The program, which debuted in 2015 and is now active in 50 cities, helps Amazon complete the “last mile” for customer orders — the final stretch of a delivery that is short in distance, yet often the most expensive part of the e-commerce supply chain. It’s becoming increasingly important as Amazon’s shipping costs could balloon to $7 billion this holiday quarter while the tech giant meets growing customer expectations — in particular from its Prime members, who pay $99 per year to receive free 2-day shipping on millions of items, among other benefits.
Amazon Flex covers not only Amazon.com orders, but also items from Prime Now, the company’s two-hour delivery service; AmazonFresh, its grocery delivery service; and Amazon Restaurants.
My experience thus far has been fascinating and actually sort of fun during the holidays, when many are relying on Amazon for their gift shopping. It’s not a glamorous high-paying job by any means — you’re a contractor, not an employee, using your own car and paying for your own gas without any direct benefits from Amazon. But it’s also relatively simple, thanks to Amazon’s impressive technology and demand for more people to deliver packages.
The slick Amazon Flex app powers everything, from scanning your packages at a pickup center, to figuring out what routes to take, to ultimately confirming that an order has been delivered — which includes taking photos of packages left at a doorstep.
I’ve done two shifts for Amazon.com orders and made $118.50 total, not counting gas expenses and overall wear and tear on my car. They were quite different — one evening I only had to deliver three packages and made $60, while a week later I spent nearly three hours on a Saturday afternoon stopping at more than 35 different houses within a half-mile of each other. (Note: I’m donating my earnings to GeekWire’s Geeks Give Back campaign to support the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship)
It’s funny watching customer reactions when a guy in a beanie, hoodie, and sweatpants — not a uniformed UPS or USPS driver, for example — shows up on their doorstep, package in hand.
“Are they doing private deliveries now?” asked one nice elderly woman as she did a double-take.
(Side note: Amazon says “you are free to choose your attire while delivering for Amazon Flex.”)
To become a Flex driver for Amazon.com deliveries, you need to meet some basic requirements; a smartphone and a 4-door vehicle for starters. Amazon also runs a background check and asks you to watch a series of instructional videos that are always accessible on the app. Other than that, it’s pretty easy to join the program.
Once activated on Flex, you find work by checking on available “blocks” that Amazon offers, which frequently change and vary on time, pay, and pickup location.
First day on the job
For my first attempt, I chose a $60 three-hour shift from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening, starting from the pickup center in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. The app pushed a notification one hour prior, providing me directions to the center.
I rolled up and waited in a long line of cars also working the same shift. I had a nervous excitement, kind of like arriving on the first day of a job. After driving into the warehouse and parking, I found an Amazon rep who had a QR code I scanned with the app that checked me in. He noted that there weren’t a ton of packages to be delivered on this particular night.
The evening shift seemed to consist partly of packages that couldn’t be delivered by other drivers during the day. I was only given three orders, all of which were to customers in the Bellevue area, east of Seattle.
I scanned each package with the app and put them in my car. One was extremely heavy and large; I wondered how I was going to actually get this to someone’s doorstep by myself.
When I was ready to leave, the app automatically directed me to the first stop, as decided by Amazon’s algorithms. You can also choose your own route and order of delivery, but I followed what Amazon provided. The maps software is based on HERE, originally developed by Nokia. Amazon may be avoiding Google Maps or Apple Maps because it wants to keep its delivery data close to the vest.
After arriving at the first house, the app automatically knew where I was and prompted me to scan the package. It noted that there was “no recipient needed,” meaning I did not have to hand the package to a person. I rang the doorbell — Amazon recommends this for deliveries before 8 p.m. — and handed off the box to my first customer. Amazon asked me where I left the package — the recipient; a receptionist; front door; back door; secure mailroom; etc. — and I checked off the appropriate box.
Next up was an apartment, which proved to be much more complicated. The recipient did provide an access code, but it was difficult finding the specific complex, especially in the dark. I spent an extra ten minutes trying to locate the actual apartment.
Finally, I arrived at the door and knocked. No one responded. This was another “no recipient needed,” but when I selected the “front door,” the app asked me to take a photo of where I left the package. This was one of several times during my Amazon Flex work when I thought about the increasing number of package thefts and what companies are doing to prevent them.
The app does provide a way to call the customer or Amazon support, which is helpful. If you’re unable to deliver a package, you drive back to the pickup center when your shift is complete and drop it off.
On the way to my third delivery, I had some time left in my block, so I stopped for a quick bite at Burgermaster — a classic joint around Seattle, and a favorite of Bill Gates.
Speaking of Gates, my third and final package was addressed to a home in his Medina neighborhood. It wasn’t for the Microsoft co-founder, but the home seemed like a mansion at the end of a windy road. The package itself was massive, and I barely could lift it up the stairs to the doorstep. It seemed a little unreasonable for Amazon to expect a Flex driver to deliver this box, particularly to this specific home, without any help from a trolley or cart.
The customer greeted me at the door and had a lot of questions: why was I driving a regular car? Does Amazon deliver on Sunday?
My job was done after 71 minutes and 20 miles of driving, with a burger break in between — not bad for $60. Amazon asked a few survey questions at the end of the shift as a way for me to provide feedback.
My next Flex experience was much, much different.
41 packages, 3 hours, $58.50
I nabbed a 3-hour shift on a Saturday afternoon, set to start at a facility in North Seattle. This one was much different — not a big warehouse, but a small dedicated Amazon Flex office with a parking lot.
I parked, walked into the office, and checked in by scanning a QR code. Shortly after that, a friendly attendant lifted a blue cover off of this:
41 packages? For me? In my car? Wowza.
The attendant told me that 15 packages per hour was the average workload, so I prepared myself for a full 3-hour shift.
I had watched some how-to Amazon Flex videos on YouTube uploaded by other couriers and learned that some people strategically organized packages in their vehicle depending on address and drop-off order, to speed up the delivery process.
After scanning each package with my smartphone, I wasn’t quite sure how to position each box in my car to optimize for efficiency. I wish Amazon made this process more systemic, because I ended up spending a lot of time searching for the right package during my drive.
This shift took much longer than my first — two hours and 25 minutes — but I drove less than 10 miles. Some quick observations from this particular shift:
- All 41 packages were within a one-mile radius. At some points there were deliveries for three consecutive houses — it was another reminder of how dominant Amazon has become.
- I saw several Ring doorbells, which seem like a good way to prevent package theft or at least have a way to see what’s going on your doorstep.
- When I had an issue, the app seemed to have an answer. For example, sometimes my GPS wouldn’t detect that I was at a particular address and the app wouldn’t allow me to continue with a delivery. However there was an option in the app — “I’m at the address but my GPS isn’t working” — that let you continue, which was clutch.
- I felt a little nervous leaving my car running while I made a delivery — I had 41-plus packages in the back of my car that were clearly visible.
- I also wondered if people thought I was a porch pirate, given my attire and how I was walking around carrying Amazon boxes. This article notes Amazon drivers being confused for thieves.
- Sometimes it was tough finding a safe place to park, especially on busy streets.
- The work was somewhat labor intensive — getting in and out of your car each time, carrying heavy packages, etc.
- I forgot to scan one package at the outset, so I had to bring it back to the Amazon Flex pickup facility when my shift was over.
Amazon Flex, like other gig economy services such as Uber or Postmates, provides people with an easy way to make some cash. Signing up is simple; the work isn’t too demanding; and you get paid within a few days.
Amazon says you can make up to $18-to-$25 per hour. After subtracting costs of gas; parking/tolls; smartphone data usage; and wear and tear of your car, the pay seems to be a little more than minimum wage. The job can also get stressful when you deal with apartment buildings, app errors, or other problems.
But being able to pick from plenty of shifts and make a quick buck is pretty nice, especially if you’re trying to pay a bill or supplement your primary income. To that point, it would be difficult to justify doing Amazon Flex for a full-time gig.
“Amazon Flex provides a flexible opportunity for Delivery Partners looking to turn free time into supplemental or part-time income,” Amazon’s FAQ page reads. “The available delivery blocks may fluctuate week to week and are not guaranteed.”
My experience so far has been pretty smooth, but a quick look on Glassdoor and Indeed reveals some complaints. Other Flex drivers are also suing Amazon, claiming that they should be treated as employees, not contractors.
This Gizmodo story also described Amazon Flex as “a network of supposedly self-employed, utterly expendable couriers enrolled in an app-based program which some believe may violate labor laws.” It noted that “government agencies and customers alike are nearly oblivious to the program’s existence.”
Does Amazon Flex make sense economically for the company? Amazon paid me $60 to deliver three packages — not so sustainable — but it also paid me $58.50 to deliver 41 packages, which comes out to about $1.50 per order.
It’s unclear how that stacks up to a paying a company like UPS, or a third-party delivery provider like OnTrac. One thing is certain: Amazon’s drones, if they ever make it, would be much more cost-effective.
So why did Amazon launch Amazon Flex? Put simply, the company needs help. Long ago, Amazon relied on USPS and UPS to get its packages delivered. Fast forward to today, though, and the company is not only selling more products on its site, but also guaranteeing speedy delivery to customers, in particular its valuable Prime members.
Amazon Flex is just one part of the company’s expansive logistics network. As it continues to make more first- and third-party products available on its site, many of which are eligible for 2-day shipping, Amazon is looking at new ways to manage and deliver the inventory.
For third party sellers, Amazon is reportedly testing a service called “Seller Flex” in the U.S. that consists of the company picking up packages sold on its site directly from the third-party warehouses. It’s an expansion of Fulfillment by Amazon.
“Handling more deliveries itself would give Amazon greater flexibility and control over the last mile to shoppers’ doorsteps, let it save money through volume discounts, and help avoid congestion in its own warehouses by keeping merchandise in the outside sellers’ own facilities,” Bloomberg reported in October.
The company also recently expanded its Lockers concept with a Amazon Hub, a new delivery locker for apartment lobbies that accepts packages from any sender, shipped via any carrier. It’s the latest move by Amazon to expand its physical retail and delivery infrastructure, ranging from its Whole Foods acquisition to its rollout of the Treasure Truck into new markets across the country.
As Amazon invests more into its delivery infrastructure, the company’s traditional retail rivals, including Walmart, Best Buy and Target, are also spending big on their own e-commerce and shipping initiatives in an effort to keep up with the e-commerce juggernaut.
Amazon has an advantage over those competitors, in that it can leverage growing profits from its Amazon Web Services cloud computing division to allow its e-commerce operations to run on razor-thin profits margins, and even at a loss.
Amazon’s rising shipping costs and related initiatives to manage delivery logistics also demonstrate the larger shift toward online shopping. For the first time this year, shoppers surveyed by Deloitte say they are planning to spend a majority of their holiday budgets online — 51 percent — compared with 42 percent in store, and 7 percent through catalogs and direct mail. Adobe reported that a record $6.59 billion was spent online in the U.S. on Cyber Monday, an increase of 16.8 percent year-over-year — the largest online shopping day in history.
So all that being said, would I recommend driving for Amazon Flex? I found the job to be straight-forward and relatively stress free. A few 3-hour shifts here and there provide nice little boost to your wallet. It’s nice knowing what work you’ll be doing, at what time, and how much you’ll be paid upfront, versus driving around for a platform like Uber where it’s a bit more spontaneous.
Amazon Flex isn’t the right fit if you’re looking for full-time work, but if you have some free time and don’t mind driving your own car for the job and using your own smartphone, it’s worth a look.