Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping?
Expect your package in a week. Maybe two.
That’s the reality for some Prime customers in the Washington and Baltimore areas heading into this holiday season. For the past few weeks, shoppers have been offered delivery dates well beyond Prime’s standard two-day pledge, even for items that are in stock. They’ve also faced challenges getting clear answers about the lag, even though the main culprit, according to Amazon.com, is tornado damage to a Baltimore warehouse.
Some customers took to Twitter with snapshots of their order issues:
For some customers, the delays and difficulties of getting answers from Amazon about what is going on have raised questions about a company whose focus on pleasing the consumer and hard-to-beat shipping guarantees have become a major part of its success. Amazon could not predict a natural disaster, of course, but some analysts say getting the Baltimore facility back to full speed is proving a test of Amazon’s broader resilience at a time when it is expanding furiously and imagining futuristic ways to deliver products — including by drone.
Amazon’s $119 Prime membership is crucial to the company’s retail business. Subscribers receive free two-day shipping, and in April, Amazon announced Prime memberships had exceed 100 million worldwide. Fast and cheap shipping has also become a major competition point between Target, Walmart, Amazon and other major retailers, particularly as each unveils its own shipping perks during the holiday season.
“Everyone marvels at Amazon Prime two-day shipping, but doesn’t really understand it,” said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser. “And now that something goes wrong, it goes from being magical to being a broken promise.”
Amazon’s issues in the D.C.-Baltimore area stem from a Nov. 2 tornado that blasted through an Amazon complex in southeast Baltimore, causing a partial collapse of a warehouse and killing two contractors inside. The storm crumbled a 50-by-50 foot concrete wall and ripped off part of the facility’s roof, Roman Clark, chief public information officer of the Baltimore City Fire Department, said in an interview. Clark said many of the tractor-trailers on the facility were overturned, with some looking “twisted like a pretzel.”
At Amazon’s complex, the building that was most directly hit was a sorting center, where packages are sorted by Zip code before they go out for delivery. Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said more than 100 full-time and part-time employees who work at the Baltimore center are still being paid for their regular shifts and are being offered other jobs at nearby facilities. Another facility located at the same complex — the Amazon Fulfillment Center, where products are stored — was not affected by the storm. The entire complex serves customers across Maryland, the District, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
(Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Lighty said the sorting center hasn’t reopened since the Nov. 2 tornado, causing packages to be rerouted through other facilities or loaded directly onto a carrier truck.
“We have been communicating to customers that due to the damage caused by severe weather in Baltimore, deliveries associated with the impacted areas may be experiencing delays,” Lighty said. “If customers have any concerns they should contact customer service.”
Asked about how a slowdown like this tests Amazon’s resiliency, and how the company has communicated with frustrated customers, Lighty said the company apologizes for any inconvenience and is working to resolve the issues. Amazon’s networks are designed to minimize impacts to orders during severe weather, she said.
Basic logistics — like communication and transportation — are crucial to Prime’s two-day shipping promise. Darren Prokop, an expert on logistics and emergency preparedness at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, said Amazon risks letting its customer service slip if any links in the chain come undone, including in the event of a natural disaster.
Threats to Amazon’s facilities worldwide go well beyond tornadoes. In the Baltimore area, Prokop guessed a warehouse could be vulnerable to fires, a localized earthquake, power outages, extreme cold or a cyberattack.
“Unless there are other distribution centers that can fill that gap in the delivery time Amazon Prime customers expect, it’s not going to work,” Prokop said.
Lighty said that during severe weather, Amazon works to ensure the safety of employees and contractors, and to minimize customer delays.
Amazon responded to some customer complaints on Twitter by clarifying Prime’s two-day guarantee kicks in only after an item has shipped and doesn’t account for the time it takes Amazon to obtain an item or prepare it for shipment.
But that didn’t sway everyone. When given that explanation by Amazon’s customer service on Twitter, one Prime customer responded in a tweet by saying, “Funny how I never waited longer than 1-3 days on ‘prime eligible’ items before this past month.”
Timothy Coombs, a crisis communication expert at Texas A&M University, said Amazon restating its policy is unlikely to win over disgruntled customers.
“That starts splitting hairs, and I know as a customer that I don’t like that,” Coombs said. “I don’t care that people have this mistaken view of the policy. Now is not a good time to clarify that for me.”
Lighty said customers facing delays should contact customer service, and Amazon has been communicating with those who are facing delays.
At first, Richard Morrison thought his Prime order on Tuesday was delayed because of Amazon’s promise that all customers will get free shipping through the holidays. But that wouldn’t explain why, when Morrison tried to complete an order on Tuesday, Prime’s two-day shipping option offered him a delivery window between Friday and Nov. 24.
Morrison, who lives in the District, ended up paying for one-day shipping. But he worries persistent delays will make it harder for him to get the items he needs without much lead time.
“You have the luxury of waiting to the last minute . . . and the short delivery window is a big value add,” Morrison said. “Obviously, that’s why people pay for Prime in the first place.”
For the past 10 years, Kam Quarles, who lives in the District, said he’d gotten used to having his orders arrive within two days. Quarles said he started wondering this week if Prime had undergone a major policy change. He doesn’t understand why, when he went to complete his order, a delivery window of 10 to 14 days came up instead of the two-day shipping option.
Amazon could have easily explained the damage caused by the tornado, Quarles said. But if the company “provides a certain level of service for 10 years, and then to just have it go completely on its head and argue that nothing’s changed, it’s not great for their customers.”
Amazon’s logistical issues and customer service missteps hit Prime customer Steve Waldman at once, he said. Waldman lives in San Francisco and wanted an $8 USB adapter to arrive at his mother’s house in Baltimore by the time he flew there at the end of this week.
When he tried to place his order on Tuesday, he was given the option to pay nearly $6 for one-day shipping. If he chose Prime’s free two-day shipping option, the adapter wouldn’t arrive until Saturday — four days later.
When Waldman took to Twitter to complain, Amazon Customer Service responded in a tweet saying customers near the wildfires raging in California “may see extended delivery dates at checkout.” Waldman followed up in a tweet saying he was actually trying to ship an item to Maryland. That’s when Amazon responded again on Twitter, saying deliveries in the area would be delayed because of “recent severe weather.”
“They’ve got a catastrophe everywhere,” Waldman told The Post with a laugh.
Waldman paid the $6 for one-day shipping (he is requesting a refund). He told The Post he doesn’t doubt that Amazon is struggling to rebound from California wildfires and Baltimore’s tornado.
He still takes issue with Amazon’s communication about what is causing the delays, and the company’s difficulty keeping orders flowing to a major metropolitan area.
“Usually they’ll surprise you about how quickly you can get things,” Waldman said. “It’s a difficult habit to break."