BERKELEY, Calif. — Amazon has been aggressively courting students as part of its experiment to bring its enormous online shopping operation into the brick-and-mortar world. Now, the company is launching Amazon Instant Pickup, a service that allows customers to order certain items from their smartphones for pickup within minutes of purchase.
Essentially, Amazon has launched its own version of the convenience store.
Five college campus locations will introduce Instant Pickup this week, including the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Maryland at College Park. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
I tried out the service at Berkeley's student union, where Amazon already has a storefront where students can pick up their Amazon packages. The company said it plans to expand the service to non-campus locations by the end of the year, starting with Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
In Berkeley, Ripley MacDonald, director of Amazon student programs, lent me a phone for a few minutes to browse through the store's collection of goods and then place an order through an Amazon.com account. I selected a bottle of San Pellegrino. While my order was processing, I added a bag of Hot Cheetos. Within three minutes, I received an alert that both were available for pickup.
I scanned a bar code on the phone's screen at a scanner located on a bank of lockers, and one of the lockers popped open with my order inside. (The goodies I ordered as part of the demo went to the store's staff.) In a real-world situation, I could have placed the order from my phone before getting to the location so that I wouldn't have to stand in front of the locker while waiting for my items.
The items came from the back of the store, where I saw workers fulfilling the orders. The store stocks several hundred other items, MacDonald said. In addition to snacks, the service also lets customers pick up home and office supplies, electronics such as charging cords and — of course — Amazon devices such as Fire TV set-top box.
Instant Pickup is a new area for Amazon, which has just entered the market for selling goods that people want immediately. But the move does seem to fit with Amazon's grocery delivery service and its pending acquisition of Whole Foods. And it gives the company an opportunity to reach consumers who already have accounts with them — and glean more information about their impulse purchases and daily needs, which some customers may balk at.
It could be a hard sell, however. Customers haven't thought of Amazon as a place to buy soda, MacDonald said, because if you want a soda, you want it now, and you want it to be cold.
So why head to Amazon's store rather than to the campus bookstore housed in the same building, or any of the other convenience stores in the area? There might be a couple of reasons. For one, if you want to be sure that the Amazon store is going to have what you want, you can search its inventory from your smartphone. For another, all you need is your smartphone — no wallet — a benefit for students who live with that device always at hand. (Although if you forget your smartphone, or don't have one, you're out of luck in this particular type of store.)
Of course, if you really want a cold soda you may opt for the immediacy of a vending machine — or even risk having to speak to a convenience store clerk. But the promise of a nearly instant Amazon package has appeal for those who need to immediately order a charging cord for a phone with a dying battery or who don't have time to walk through a supermarket just to pick up paper towels.
Just make sure you have enough juice to scan the bar code.