It would not be fair to expect any firm anywhere on the planet to have been ready for the coronavirus pandemic.
For all the many disagreements that might exist out there, there is nearly a universal consensus that no one saw this coming or really could have. That simple fact more or less vitiated the possibility of anyone being prepared, from stores, to public officials, to farmers, to restaurants, to startups — everyone has spent the last several weeks trying to pivot and respond as the situation on the ground changes moment to moment.
Expecting any firm or entity to be able to jump in on a dime and adapt to something no one could have seen coming stretches the boundaries of the term “big ask.”
That said, if there were any firm that perhaps people suspected might be stepping into a moment to shine, Amazon would have looked like a strong candidate a month ago. A logistics powerhouse by design and a commerce giant by any reasonable measure, Amazon seemed the firm ideally suited to step into the world of social distancing where all commerce was overnight eCommerce. With its warehouses, grocery stores, delivery force, tech stack and massive internal infrastructure dedicated to getting things shipped to customers’ doors within a day (if not within a few hours), Amazon, most assumed, if not prepared for what was coming, would at least be able to adapt quickly.
Nearly a month into the COVID-19 crisis, it seems that forecasts were perhaps a bit premature.
It wouldn’t be fair to say Amazon blew it. They’ve bumped employee pay, moved to hire 100,000 new workers, pressed the pause button on loans extended to marketplace sellers, loaded up Alexa with diagnostic skills, cracked down on price gougers and prioritized the shipping of essential items to customers who need them. Amazon has clearly been working overtime to respond to the unfolding situation.
However, it also wouldn’t be fair to say Amazon has knocked it out of the park. The primary complaint being aimed at the firm right now is delayed shipping. The move to prioritize “household staples, medical supplies and other high demand products” coming into their fulfillment center, has meant that the priority on other items has turned way down. One-day shipping has more or less become a casualty of COVID-19, buried under delays on “non-essential” items that are stretching to a month and beyond at this point.
And, according to some reports, the worst may be yet to come as Amazon is both facing infection with the COVID-19 virus among its warehouse staff, and labor disputes as healthy workers threaten to walk away from their warehouse jobs due to concerns about their health and safety.
Those delays aren’t just in Amazon’s eCommerce; consumers logging on to use Prime delivery have been discovering that stocks of certain essential items — toilet paper of course — are severely limited and that wait times for delivery aren’t being measured in hours but in weeks.
It is a situation that consumers — who have come to rely on Amazon Prime’s delivery of goods and groceries as a staple of their lives — are finding hard to wrap their minds around. How could Amazon fail to deliver?
“As Americans, we do get used to certain things,” Jesse Rodriguez, 59, told the Los Angeles Times. “When it’s just nonexistent, it’s alarming.”
Alarming and unacceptable — particularly for Americans who don’t have a month to wait for items that they feel are essential. If the company that trained them to expect their digital orders nearly instantly can’t provide that for them, other companies that think they can are stepping in to try.
Smaller niche brands specializing in particular types of goods — beauty and wellness, cosmetics, household items, containers, games and other nice-to-haves that Amazon can’t deliver fast — are aiming to send them directly to customers. They are still experiencing shipping delays, Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of the research firm Marketplace Pulse, noted in a Times interview. The entire national supply chain has been “pushed to the limit,” and all goods are moving slower.
But give consumers the choice between slower by a few days or even a week and slower by a month, and the likely preference is obvious.
Amazon also faces brands with physical stores. Store owners can’t use their spaces for normal retail purposes, but they can leverage them to deliver orders to their customers curbside within a few hours or a day at most. As it turns out, for the time being, the best way to out Amazon in terms of delivery speed in the age of COVID-19 is to have a physical store embedded into the community.
Sort of, at least. Again, in the interest of fairness, notably Amazon isn’t the only big company that is hitting a big roadblock or two. Target and Walmart customers have both complained in recent days that they’ve had online orders digitally confirmed — only to arrive curbside to find that the item was actually out of stock and they were going home empty handed. Target, in particular, has been hit hard with such glitches. Walmart, meanwhile, has also ended up with long delivery wait times for locations that offer grocery delivery — and the same outages that consumers complain about with Amazon.
Amazon is far from the only company struggling to keep up with a very challenging environment, although it may be unique in struggling with the expectations that it was going to be somewhat more prepared to take this on than it actually turned out to be.
The questions for the next months as consumers are still largely homebound looking to be socially distant: Which firm will manage to fix the glitches and start coming closer to meeting the ingrained expectations of consumers? Amazon still might step up and enjoy its moment to shine.
But if it doesn’t, or doesn’t do it soon, one gets the strong impression there is a growing crowd of contestants hoping they might just get a shot at stealing that eCommerce crown, or at least taking a bit of the shine off Amazon's post-coronavirus world.