A tale of two Amazon deliveries

A jovial middle-aged man pokes the order button on a touchscreen from the comfort of his armchair. Minutes later he’s ambling through the bucolic Cambridgeshire countryside at the bottom of his garden to pluck a parcel from the ground. It’s his Amazon delivery materializing like manna from heaven — thanks to the high-profile Prime Air drone trial he’s been selected to participate in. One of just two U.K. customers living in the picturesque, rural area Amazon has chosen to kick the quadcopter chops of this oh-so-boutique “beta trial.”

Meanwhile, I’m sitting at my computer not-so-quietly fuming that the Amazon Marketplace delivery I ordered on November 25 — due for delivery between December 7 and 10 — has just as spectacularly failed to arrive in my house. Yet Amazon’s delivery interface cheerfully informs me that my delivery has been made. Which it has not. I have had to burrow deep into the many menus of the website’s awfully confusing customer interface trying to find a button that will allow me to inform Amazon that my parcel has not, in fact, been delivered. No such button exists. Amazon is not, after all, the seller for this transaction — it’s just the highly branded platform facilitating the sale. Buyer beware and all that.

But over in Prime Air promo land, Richard A, the friendly looking fellow starring in the Prime Air marketing video, is already back in his cozy front room unboxing his Amazon Fire TV and packet of air-freighted dog biscuits. I should be so lucky. Instead, I am sitting indoors wearing fingerless gloves and a woolly winter scarf over my TechCrunch jumper because the electric heater I ordered on Amazon is sitting useless in someone else’s building. Multiple messages to the seller querying where my delivery has gone have gone unanswered.

Buried deep within the bowels of Amazon’s Marketplace messaging interface I eventually unearth a failed delivery message, which suggests an attempted delivery was made on December 7, after which the delivery company wrote that it would try again the following day. Yet it’s now days later and I still don’t have my delivery, so I switch tactics and try to get hold of the delivery company. The best route for that appears to be Twitter, where a DM query to their customer service account gets their attention within minutes. They also claim my delivery has been made, and ask for my email so they can send me the delivery slip. I reply immediately hoping for a quick resolution but hear no more from them for the rest of the day.

The following morning I get an email with the delivery note attached. The document has indeed been signed by someone — just not by me. There’s an identification number for this person that is not my ID number. The address on the slip also looks partial, as if the seller failed to include my flat number along with the street number which the Amazon ordering interface delivered to them when I clicked “purchase.”

Now although I finally have some information about where the delivery has gone I still have no clue who has my heater, because the signature is an indecipherable squiggle. Nor do I know where it is — because the address on the slip is not complete. I definitely still don’t have it. But Amazon and its Marketplace seller have my money. I am not happy. I immediately DM the delivery company telling them that the signature and ID number are not mine, and reiterate that I have not received the delivery. They say they will contact the relevant department to see what they can do. No more DMs are forthcoming from them for the rest of the day. We’re settling into a pattern that requires an awful lot of patience — over and above the nearly two weeks I’ve waited to receive the heater I bought on Amazon. It seems especially unjust when I consider the 13 minutes Richard A had to wait for his impulse gadget purchase plus dog treats to turn up just beyond his doorstep. How the marginal fraction of Amazon drone delivery beta testers live…

Later in the day, a few hours after the Prime Air promo video has been tweeted out by Jeff Bezos, an email from the Marketplace seller lands in my inbox. They blame their radio silence on being extra busy over the holiday period, and claim my delivery was made on December 9 — a day when, incidentally, I was at home listening for the doorbell that was never rung by the delivery person who didn’t turn up. This detail is extra odd because Amazon’s “track package” feature consistently informed me my delivery would arrive on December 10. I waited in all morning on that day, too. Yet apparently the package had already been delivered by then. Just not to me. Behind the shiny facade of Amazon’s e-commerce platform it seems there are a lot of wires not plugged into anything at all.

Of course the seller’s “proof” of delivery is the same delivery slip that the delivery company already sent me. I email back right away refuting all this and pointing out they seem to have missed the apartment number on the address slip — routing my parcel to somewhere else on the street, presumably, just not to me. Given it took the seller a full two days to respond to my first message I am not hopeful of a speedy response. And sure enough the email exchange lapses right back into silence. It’s getting dark outside now. It feels like it’s going to be another cold night. I pull on another pair of socks to ward off the chill I am being forced to endure while I wait to see if the heater I ordered for the winter months will ever be delivered. Or if I can get a speedy refund — which would free me from this Amazon Marketplace delivery limbo to be able to go and buy a heater from an actual shop and deliver it to my actual house myself. So much for the convenience of online shopping.

What does this careless un-delivery tell us about Amazon’s Prime Air drone scheme? That it’s first and foremost a brand marketing exercise, existing in another realm entirely to the reality of shopping on Amazon outside a chosen handful of regions and markets where delivery has been hyper-prioritized by the company. These can include urban regions where it offers its Prime Now two-hour delivery service. Or the minuscule U.K. drone delivery trial-cum-marketing exercise. Or even its Prime same-day delivery service. All of those Amazon-branded delivery services are partial in multiple ways, such as where they are available; and which goods can be delivered this way. Prime is also a fee-paying membership club. The “prime” goal is to convince users of the utility of locking themselves into an ongoing e-commerce relationship with Amazon by signing up for Prime membership. Yet outside the handful of slickly managed delivery-cum-PR channels, Amazon’s sprawling marketplace can be the very opposite of a convenient consumer experience — as my experience amply illustrates.

Also not mentioned in any Amazon promotional material: how technology convenience can carry a steep human cost for the workers sweating to fulfill its overly expeditious promises.

Amazon Marketplace limbo has at least been a useful experience in illustrating technology’s flip-side. And convinced me never to order anything from Amazon again. I have lost count of the number of bricks-and-mortar shops I have walked past in the weeks of waiting that have just the sort of electric heaters I need on sale there and then — any of which could have been sitting in my apartment keeping me warm all this while. Many of which are also less expensive than the one I ordered. Once again, the “convenience” of online shopping is looking increasingly relative.

I’m also left wondering how Amazon will cope when drone deliveries go wrong. Will it add a button for “my drone never arrived?” Or “my drone arrived but my parcel wasn’t attached?” Or “my drone delivery got ruined in the rain?” Or will it just gear its systems to pump out mindless delivery affirmations that claim all is well with Prime Air even if it’s not, and not really bother connecting the dots to be in a position to help when stuff goes wrong? Maybe Bezos and Co. will sweat to make drone deliveries function seamlessly even when things inevitably go, awry but even so, they will still only be catering to a marginal fraction of customers with this vanity impulse buy service. Prime Air drones are there to sell more stuff on Amazon, not provide a vital utility at any scale. And as the saying goes, if it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.

So while Amazon’s marketing machine continues to pump out its one-sided narrative of push-button on-demand lifestyle fodder consumerism, it pays to remember the reality of this e-commerce empire is a lot messier, complicated and conflicted for those outside its VIP club.

On-demand? At this point I’ll settle for actually delivered.