Reliable Amazon Isn’t Anymore

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I’ve felt the disappointment. The out-of-stock messages on Amazon for toilet paper and Lysol cleaner. Delivery times quoted in weeks.

So many of us want to order online now instead of setting foot in stores, and the pressures on Amazon — by far the leading internet retailer in the United States — are unimaginable. But the recent shortages and delays are surprising for a company that’s usually reliable at quickly shipping us everything under the sun — including a parasol to block the sun.

I talked to my colleague Karen Weise about how Amazon is tackling pandemic shopping challenges and about our current difficulties buying products online.

Are these supply shortages and delays Amazon’s fault, or is there just too much demand?

Karen: It’s both. Amazon is shipping a lot of products, but not everything people want. Other companies have similar challenges. But Amazon is unique because it’s the default place to shop online. People trust them to bring them what they need, when they want it. It makes Amazon more in demand.

Another challenge that affects Amazon’s service now is the limits of its work force and work spaces. If people are spaced out more in a warehouse, it’s harder to move products around. And many employees have been unsatisfied with the company’s safety measures, and some have stayed home.

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Are other companies doing better?

I have not seen good data on this. I don’t know if Walmart is able to get more toilet paper to customers than Amazon is. Unlike Walmart and Target, Amazon doesn’t offer the choice of ordering online and picking up items at a store. In talking to shoppers, they’ve been using that option.

I find my well-established local grocery store in Seattle is doing a good job keeping things stocked.

You wrote that Amazon is using techniques, like estimating long delivery times, to discourage orders. Amazon is turning away business?!

It’s weird! But they clearly have more demand than they can serve. Amazon would rather lose a sale than disappoint you by not delivering an order in a promised time.

When they purposefully padded delivery times, it gave them more flexibility about when to fulfill the order, and it discouraged people from ordering certain items. Part of it is about managing people’s expectations.

Will people forgive Amazon’s delays or difficulties in a crisis? (See our readers’ thoughts on this below.)

That’s the existential question. Many customers understand that these are unusual times and are grateful for the deliveries they have gotten. But Amazon was built on the promise that it had everything, and got it to people quickly.

Now that Amazon can’t deliver on everything people want super fast, it might be an opportunity for other companies to permanently pick up new shoppers.

Given the logistical and ethical challenges of shopping right now, have your habits changed?

I’ve done some online shopping from stores in my neighborhood that I want to be there when this crisis is over. But apart from groceries and some stuff to occupy my kid, I’ve been buying much less in general.

My old roommates used to call me Consumer Reports, but I don’t have the mental energy for product research. I also don’t need a delivery person or a warehouse worker to spend effort getting me products that don’t feel essential.

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Your Take

Views on a very different Amazon

Last week we asked how the pandemic has affected your online shopping and experience with Amazon. We heard from hundreds of you. Here’s a selection of the responses, lightly edited.

We had structured our life around Amazon and Amazon Prime Now Whole Foods delivery to meet the vast majority of our shopping needs, including groceries. However, since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, we have been forced to give up on Prime Now deliveries.

At the same time as some forms of life are exploding online, one is also made aware of the limitations of relying extensively on technology. Sometimes, you just have to get on your bicycle and go to the grocery store. At least I can still pay with Apple Pay. Andrew S. Klug, San Francisco

I regularly shop at Amazon because at this retirement home, we are on total lockdown. The experience has been good. I even got a digital thermometer when mine got “lost.” When something is out of stock, Amazon tells me.

I hear lots of bad stuff about Amazon, but Jeff Bezos, in my book, got it right when he started Amazon. I couldn’t do easily without it. Ruth Zekowski, Evanston, Ill.

The only thing I have ordered online in the last eight weeks is two balaclava-style masks for protection. Have I been tempted to shop Amazon? Sure, for a second. Then I think about the workers forced by economic necessity to keep working in potentially hazardous conditions while I sit at home. What makes me so special? Sandra Graham, Babson Park, Mass.

I don’t think the current pandemic and how it has impacted Amazon’s priority fulfillment policy will ultimately steer me away from Amazon.com. But it has, at least, encouraged me to rediscover other online retailers.

I think when all this is over, I will definitely be spending more time to shop at multiple online stores rather than defaulting to Amazon. Darran Hanson, Federal Way, Wash.

Overall, I’ve been very impressed with how well Amazon has done during the Covid-19 crisis. Things I have ordered have come promptly, not always in two days, but promptly. Some items I have ordered were obviously high-demand items and took longer because of manufacturer shortages, not Amazon’s fault.

I could have driven all over town and not found a lot of the stuff I have ordered. Jeff Hill, Scotts Valley, Calif.

For me, Amazon is delivering. Maybe not overnight anymore, but it is the time of coronavirus. I can’t go to the store because I’m sick but I can order a pair of gloves delivered to my door so I can garden in social isolation. And I can place an order for food when reservation slots open at midnight.

I’ve tried to get groceries delivered from all the stores around me and there are no reservations for someone to shop for me for well over a month. So Amazon is not as good as it used to be, but under the circumstances it is much better than the other alternatives I have, which are none right now. Lorraine Calissi-Corral, Kirkland, Wash.

I am glad to tell you about those of us who live in small towns and have no delivery services to help us. I sit here and use my iPhone to see all that is available for those who live in the cities, but not for us. Thank goodness for our son who does our shopping.

Hubby and I are over 75 years old, and we need help getting our food and other things. But the stores that I used to go to will not deliver to my house. Hubby just had a hip replacement and can’t drive so we are at home with no help. I just want you to know how hard it is for us.Sandra Davis

I totally forgive Amazon for being slower, but Amazon, please remember we paid for a very specific delivery time-frame and however reasonably, you cannot deliver on that anymore. When anybody else accepts money for a service they can’t deliver, they have to give the money back. Sean Deitrick, Knoxville, Tenn.

Before we go …

  • Our habits changed fast when we were forced indoors: Netflix from January to March signed up more new customers than it typically gets in six months, my colleague Ed Lee writes. Most of the surge in subscribers came as lockdown orders started in March.

  • Imagine if Facebook owned part of AT&T: That’s what happened in India, where Facebook agreed to buy a chunk of the country’s largest mobile phone company, Jio Platforms. Mike Isaac and Vindu Goel of The Times write that Facebook and its WhatsApp app became ubiquitous in India as Jio’s cheap and fast mobile internet service brought hundreds of millions of people online for the first time.

  • Clever or icky? Vice reports on people who write software that automatically nabs hard-to-find delivery slots for groceries. This automated software, also used for high-demand products like sneakers and concert tickets, probably locks out grocery orders from people who aren’t tech savvy.

Hugs to this

The basketball star LeBron James is better than you at everything, including family dance routines.

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