When you order something online, getting that thing from the warehouse into your hot little hands is hard. Internet commerce is designed to obscure that difficulty—packages are supposed to alight on your welcome mat as though dropped there by the delivery fairy—but challenges persist, and they are only getting worse. There are just too many doorsteps, and too many things that need to alight on them. At the peak of demand, a single holiday season in the United States involves billions of deliveries, all ferried by hand to purchasers within days of dispatch.
In the shipping business, this end portion of a product’s journey from manufacturer to consumer is what’s known as “last mile.” It is an enormous problem without any immediate solution. Retailers and logistics firms boast of investments in automation and artificial intelligence and delivery robots, but right now nothing can meaningfully replace a guy driving a van to your address and walking your box to your front door. To account for this, large internet retailers, and especially Amazon, have spent years devising creative ways to bolster their delivery armies: signing high-volume deals with USPS and UPS, contracting with local logistics services to use their fleets, paying gig workers per package to make deliveries in their own car. Now Amazon is set to take the next step in enlisting every human possible to bring you your stuff; your online-shopping impulse buy might be delivered by your local florist or dry cleaner.
Earlier this week, the company announced that it would expand its Hub Delivery pilot program, which contracts with local businesses to deliver shipments of Amazon packages using the businesses’ staff and cars, to 23 states and some of the nation’s biggest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle. To make it work, the company is trying to recruit 2,500 small businesses to the program—“no delivery experience required,” the Hub Delivery website tells prospective applicants. As part of this Amazon side hustle, businesses will turn their existing employees into package couriers, delivering up to 50 parcels a day. (Amazon has not responded with comment on the expansion.)
The program is only the latest effort to retrofit the infrastructure and labor force necessary to feed America’s online-shopping habit onto a landscape designed for much less mail and much more in-person interaction. So far, it remains an uneasy fit.
The difficulties of last mile become dizzying if you think about them for too long. Package delivery is labor-intensive work, conducted in all kinds of weather conditions and across all kinds of geographies, usually for little pay. In rural areas, the potential employee pool is small, and the number of deliveries that any one driver can make can be limited by the distance between houses. In urban areas, delivery drivers rarely have easy places to park their truck, so they block traffic, use sidewalks to organize stacks of packages, and navigate locked gates and broken buzzers. Many drivers work under tight surveillance, with some shipping companies tracking and timing every delivery made.
Amazon’s expansion of Hub Delivery seems to acknowledge that not all of these obstacles can be overcome by pushing individual workers to deliver more efficiently. In the U.S., the program was first tested in 2021, in a handful of states with significant rural populations—the customers for whom last-mile problems are perhaps most obviously immutable. In some of these areas, there may not consistently be enough deliveries to warrant a full-time local logistics operation, or the population may be so dispersed that a few people doing a few deliveries each during slow periods at the convenience store or hair salon could accomplish what a lone person in a dedicated delivery truck could not easily (or profitably) do in a single workday.
When expanded to dense cities, however, the logistical advantage of Hub Delivery over a traditional courier workforce seems a little more difficult to justify. Urban areas present an entirely different set of issues than rural ones: There are always plenty of packages that will all need to be delivered within a relatively confined geographic area, and hurdles such as finding safe parking or knowing how to get into a particular apartment building are ameliorated with experience. Because of its high volume and predictability, urban delivery is the kind of setup that lends itself especially well to permanent pools of full-time couriers, not people who thought they’d signed up to make coffee or arrange flowers or dry-clean dress shirts and are suddenly trying to gain access to your apartment building with a dolly full of cardboard boxes.
You don’t have to look that hard to see the appeal for Amazon. The payouts that the company is promising to affiliate businesses, who will need to provide their own delivery vehicles and insurance, are pretty meager: $27,000 a year at most, for a commitment to deliver 20 to 50 packages a day, seven days a week. The program is clearly not meant to support these local businesses hiring additional employees; the company says as much in the Hub Delivery FAQs. For just a couple of bucks or so per package, contracting with local businesses allows Amazon to access not only an existing labor source, but also existing management and equipment, to help get packages to people.
For some small-business owners, the opportunity to diversify their revenue streams and squeeze a little bit of additional work out of their staff is probably tempting, even though small businesses are not generally known for having more employees on the clock than they have work that needs to be done. Some small businesses have already become makeshift logistics nodes, accepting drop-offs for UPS or hosting a pickup locker for Amazon packages to bring in a little bit of extra money or foot traffic. The Hub Delivery expansion is just the next step toward being absorbed into someone else’s supply chain, even if it’s a rather big one.
For workers doing the actual deliveries, meanwhile, the value proposition is less clear. Unlike the Amazon Flex gig workers who deliver packages in their own car, these newly appointed couriers don’t receive any direct payment from Amazon for the number of deliveries they do, or for any of the organizational or logistical tasks required to handle dozens of packages a day. It’ll just be another thing added to their on-the-clock duties. That you could take a job as a barista or at an auto shop and actually end up spending much of your time involved in package delivery for Amazon at the sole discretion of your boss is, at best, unsettling.
If this program takes off, it could mean that you get your next order of bulk toilet paper a few hours faster, or that Amazon makes a little more money on it. But the grand lesson of the 24-hour-shipping era is that convenience comes with a cost. Amazon’s move is evidence of just how far major retailers have been allowed to creep into our lives. As they’ve built empires through relentless optimization and expansion, that ethos has come to influence issues such as wages and working conditions for labor forces far beyond their own. Now the very lines of that labor force are blurring. Anyone can be a delivery worker. You might be a delivery worker, even if you didn’t expect it when you got your job. No matter how much major retailers crow about automation and efficiency, nothing about the delivery economy can survive without the constant, steady availability of millions of hands to do the unglamorous work of moving packages through space. If you let yours go idle, your boss just might subcontract them out.