Amazon Flex: How Amazon is conquering the retail space


(Bick Bhangoo) #1

Amazon is one of the worlds most powerful and rich B2P companies, putting its founder CEO Jeff Bezos into the top billionaire list and the person who has the world's largest personal fortune. Amazon is, in fact, a glorified logistics company that stands between manufacturers and customers. It started out as a small, inefficient delivery company that realized the importance of logistics centers and accurate delivery services. Restructured its physical attributes and emerged as the US's largest and most powerful logistics company, controlling prices and production amounts to the extent that one-third of all money spent online (33%) is an Amazon payment. The company started off concentrating on books and quickly expanded to many other products, today it is going into every market corner, and niche and at its current rate of expansion will become an online monopoly putting the all serious competition out of business. The only other company that can compare to Amazon in size and scope is China's Ali-Baba for B2B and Ali-Express for B2P.

Amazon's domination of the US market is not due to its great logistics acumen alone; it has managed to raise over $1 billion in local subsidies. Whenever Amazon comes to town, the municipality scrambles over itself to offer incentives for their presence. While many might think that Amazon will deliver great employment incentives when coming to town, in reality, the opposite is the actual result. The only facility that Amazon will bring is a logistics center; the rest will be employing independent contractors or delivery companies.

What is unknown or not really thought of is; how does Amazon deliver its products? While it does have logistics centers that collect all items shipped from manufacturers, who actually delivers the finished product from the logistics center to the customer.

Amazon Flex

This is Amazon's delivery app. Unlike Uber, where the driver is the face of the company, Amazon Flex couriers are the companies unnoticed worker bees, that go about delivering packages all over the country.

Most of the population have no clue as to how Amazon reaches their doorstep, and most don't really care. When looking at the Amazon structure, we see that the last mile is where all the action is. It has taken Amazon nearly two years to perfect it's lowest tier logistics machine. The Amazon Flex app and contract structure efficiently manage hundreds of hands of couriers nationwide, with a large turnover as well as contracting local delivery companies that use vans and commercial sized vehicles. These are the people that complete Amazon's final delivery mile at the end of the complex logistics operations that start from a well garnished GUI online.

Flexing the Amazon Muscle

There are or were, a number of advantages for working with Amazon Flex, at least that was the case two years ago when it first started. A number of couriers gave their individual accounts of what they have gone through over the time they were employed as Amazon Flex couriers.

Application

The first step any courier goes through is the application process; every Amazon Flex courier must go through a basic application process that includes meeting preset requirements and go through a basic background check. There is an optional training session of about one hour, and then you are meant to be ready to deliver.

Amazon Flex operates out of Fulfillment Centers (FC) which is a fancy title for logistics center or warehouse. The company works "Blocks" and not shifts, so a courier will have to schedule a Block ahead of time and this is also arranged according to certain rules. A courier that chooses a block must deliver it completely and here are some personal accounts from Amazon Flex couriers.

Pros and Cons

One courier put his pros and cons from over a years' experience driving for Amazon flex like this; The first is flexibility; nothing beats a job where you control your time schedule. You can set your weeks to shift as you want it. For instance, I decided to work the night before Christmas, and that really worked out well. The second reason is bonus pay, just to work the holiday season they pay $30 per hour, so a four-hour block brings in $120, which is really great. Holiday driving isn't for everyone, some families prefer to spend more time together over the holidays, but I find that since this is a flexible job, I get to be with my family whenever I want, so raking in the extra bucks working over holidays gives me more time to spend with my family during slow and low-income seasons. So that's reasons numbers one and two working interactively. Reason number three has definitely got to be, being your own boss. You don't have anyone breathing down your neck, checking your performance and demanding more. You just make the deliveries as fast as you can to earn as much as possible in the least amount of time it takes to deliver a block. I guess that first thing on the top of my list of dislikes was warehouse disorganization, you go there to pick up your block of packages and on a number of occasions you have to wait in line behind other cars for 15 to 20minutes, since they haven't received their route yet and you wait while our packages sit on the racks. Another factor of disorganization is the number of packages does not match the number of deliveries on your sheet. After you scan in all the packages you usually end up with missing items; you get frustrated, mention it to the staff who are quite complacent about the whole thing. The second dislike is the company's feedback. It is impersonal, just an e-mail whenever a customer was dissatisfied, or delivery was late. They don't bother to make any kind of personal contact, just an automated e-mail message in an automated software system. This usually arises with multiple deliveries to apartment buildings. When you arrive with seven packages, I find it quicker and easier to deliver them all to the building's supervisor, and they sign for all the packages, rather than trying to locate every apartment and deliver personalized, which can take a long time. Also, most apartment building offices prefer you drop off with them, then having a stranger traipse about the building complex, it's part of a security protocol. Another issue arising from this are building offices that send you to a special package delivery room and bore you with irrelevant building policies. It is not really in line with Amazon's delivery policy, but it does make sure you complete a block quickly, and in many cases, the receiver is not at home, so you save a lot of time delivering to one building official.

The work processes

Another driver stated the following; First, remember that the number of deliveries per block will always be too much. You end up running against the clock, and if you don't make all the deliveries you get a ticket, if you get two tickets you're out of a job. So even though the warehouse supervisors might snarl at you, ask to reduce the number of packages if it is too big. It's better dealing with an angry supervisor than angry customers.

You must get out of the warehouse as soon as possible; you don't want to waste valuable block time in the warehouse. Also, you invariably must wait between 20 to 30 minutes in line until you get your package load. You must scan in all your items to check you have everything, and make sure you have the right number of packages, if you have less it's easier to find it in the warehouse then not taking it and if you have more, get rid of the extra load, you don't want to deal with an extra package. The longer they keep you, the more reason you must lower the number of packages, and you use this to your advantage. It transfers the blame on to them and not on to you.

While most drivers just scan and place their items in the car or van for delivery, I find that envelopes have a special knack of falling under the seams and hiding from you the moment you need to deliver them. So instead of bunching everything together in one big lump, even if they are arranged by address and delivery route. I place the envelopes separately, by address and number and this assures me I will never lose an envelope in the car or must search frantically for one when I arrive at a delivery location.

The next thing about arranging the envelopes is to make sure the bar code faces the same way and to arrange the addresses by number. You don't need to be too exact with the numbers if they are for an apartment complex, but when you pull out envelopes, you want to have a little time to arrange them for scanning. Arrange the QR codes by number lots and place the single items separately. If you have experience using the app you know what I am talking about.

Apart from the special box for envelopes, make sure you have enough room for large packages and boxes. Make sure you have ease of access for heavy boxes, the last thing you want is to be stuck figuring out how to get a large heavy ox out of the back of your car after tossing it in carelessly at the warehouse. While you will re-arrange the items after you ma your route, make sure the boxes are easy to reach and are in numerical order, this will make identifying them easier.

The next important thing to know is that the app does not send you to the first location based on any logic, it starts sending you to a random starting point. So, once I have picked up the packages, scanned them and sorted them out in my car, I park for a minute, in a place that does not obstruct the flow. This is the time I study the map. I prefer to set my deliveries like a swirl, working from the outside in, that way I save a lot of driving time and money. I look at the map and set the first delivery to the outermost arm and then plan the rest based on routing to the center of the swirl. Even though it takes a few minutes to tap every flag on the map and create a good and efficient route, I have never had a late delivery, and by careful and efficient route planning you save a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, which accounts for those awkward complex deliveries that can hold you back. If I find that there is a package that will hold me back or cause a problem for delivery timing, I give it back to the warehouse stating that I cannot meet the block time with that package.

A successful mapping route will be reached through consistent driving in one area. This means that you should pick your block location based on road knowledge and after a while, you will find that you know many repeat customers. This will give you an indication of how long each one will take the roads, the traffic and the customers all add up to planning a successful block.

This is an important tip for new drivers, don't get caught in an apartment complex trap. Every apartment complex has an office, you go to the office, and you deliver all the packages to the staff there. Some buildings have a special delivery room for this kind of stuff. It saves a lot of time and hassle as well as assures the packages are in stored in a safe place until the apartment owner picks them up. So, the customer will walk their few feet to reach the office and pick up the package, at least it was delivered, and on time to the building, instead of you trying to find every apartment, waiting for an owner to answer the door.

If its raining and there is no one to deliver the package too, do not leave it outside, do not let it get damaged. Take the package back, and claim it was undeliverable due to possible damage. If it is raining, call support and the customer too, but do not take a chance that it will get damaged. If the customer wants you to leave the package anyway, make sure your line is recording the call, identify yourself properly and state that the package is likely to be damaged due to rain or snow and you prefer to deliver it another day. If the customer states that it is OK, then a recorded message covers you, but make sure the customer knows that the message is being recorded.

It's always good to have a foldable hand truck in the car as well as heavy duty gloves to protect your hands. The cart is good for delivering multiple boxes to apartment buildings and commercial premises, and the gloves are good to make sure your hands don't get cut or damaged when handling heavy objects.

Once you make the delivery, you should take a photo of the receipt as well as the delivery location. Sometimes drivers will be prompted to do this for extra verification. Take note that Amazon Flex is still not a well-known service yet, so when you arrive, the customer might be suspicious of a stranger with no uniform driving an unmarked car making a delivery. Show some identification or get an Amazon Flex t-shirt.

Amazon Flex Types

Amazon Flex provides two different devices for their customers, a standard commercial logistics delivery service, and a prime now fast delivery service. As a driver, you must know which warehouse to pick up the packages from since they are two sperate buildings as well as connecting online via two different websites. The golden rule is to remember or think of them as two different companies with similar names, and that way you won't be confused.

The Amazon Prime Now service can be found at primenow.amazon.com, and this service is faster than Logistics, blocks are usually 1-2 hours and deliveries are smaller in number. The deliveries are to be found in a different warehouse location. Also, highly important to note, Prime Now includes food deliveries, which means it's a door to door restaurant delivery service and not just a package delivery service, so the items you need, and mode of transportation are different.

Amazon Flex Prime Now parcels are usually sealed in paper bags with tape or in case of food in insulated bags. These packages tend to be small and don't take up much space unless you get a large bottle delivery. In most cases, you will be able to put the packages in your back seat.

Amazon Flex Logistics will deliver packages in all shapes and sizes. They can even be very large and heavy, so your car must be capable of taking large boxes. This means, match the car to the service you are providing and don't use a small two-door coupe.

Both services pay a base rate of $18 per hour. The main difference between the two are in the tips; Prime Now get tipped while Logistics do not. This means that Prime Now may reach $22 to $25 per hour of deliveries, but they have smaller blocks; Logistics might earn only $18 per hour but have larger blocks to deliver.

Amazon Flex Logistics is a warehouse pickup only, so, there is only one block type.

Prime Now has three deliveries pick up options; Warehouse for multiple deliveries of nonperishables, usually just Logistics packages that need fast delivery. Restaurants only, where you will be sent to a number of restaurants to pick up ready-made meals for delivery. This is Amazon Flex's competition to DoorDash, UberEats, etc. You have to match the equipment you use to the service type you take, and this is imperative for hot and cold food deliveries. Supermarkets where you will pick up grocery deliveries and also competes with Postmates and such services.

Amazon Flex Prime now blocks are shorter in length due to the nature of the delivery, you must deliver your items very quickly, sometimes within minutes in the case of restaurants and within one hour for warehouse deliveries. The blocks are limited to 2 hours; some can be 3 hours for restaurant blocks. Grocery and Warehouse blocks can be short such as 1 or 2 hours.

Amazon Flex Logistics are all a 3 or four-hour blocks; they vary based on the time of day, 3 hours are usually limited to morning deliveries and four-hour blocks to the afternoon. If you are lucky, you might get two blocks on the same day.

Amazon Flex Prime Now deliveries are limited to no more than 10 stops for a warehouse schedule, for restaurant deliveries you will most probably have two an hour on a busy block.

Amazon Flex Logistics has anywhere between 20 to 50 stops per block. When performing a morning block for Logistics, it is advisable to have a route planned properly since you will encounter traffic and parking issues.

Amazon Flex Prime Now is limited to 20 parcels, where a usual warehouse block will provide anywhere between 5 to 20 parcels for delivery.

Amazon Flex Logistics will have anywhere between 30 to 70 parcels and the larger the parcel, the less you will have. The number of parcels for delivery varies greatly between blocks.

Amazon Flex Logistics tend to earn more money in the long run due to the number of hours in a shift, while Prime Now might enjoy a more relaxed number or deliveries they do get tips which balance out the easier shift option.

Difficult Times

Most drivers have to contend with strict adherence to FC personnel rules and directions. While "Amazon" is the company, it is populated by employees that manage the FC's and as such, manage the couriers. A lot of data that we calculated based on courier accounts suggests that blocks are not synchronized to package numbers, and in fact, there are many instances where blocks can either be overpopulated or underpopulated. The overpopulated block is the problem block since the driver had to meet the delivery of all parcels in the block and will not accept undelivered parcels due to time issues. Some couriers complained about Amazon block "Cap," where the blocks were limited to 40 hours a week, as independent contractors they expected t be able to set as many blocks as they wanted, but in reality was limited to the number of hours they would be allotted in a week. This capping has led to some physical arguments in FC loading area's where couriers have argued over line queues. One courier stated that over a year ago it was easy to get enough work, sometimes there were so many blocks to choose from you had a choice, now you struggle to fill in the number of blocks you want to perform.

The flip side of this argument is in favor of Amazon, it has succeeded in saturating the market with couriers, to such an extent that there are now more couriers than needed and it is important to balance out the workload so that everyone gets a chance to deliver, it also means that if there are more couriers on the streets to deliver packages, Amazon will reach all their customers on time every time. Rather than overload one courier with too many deliveries, that will exceed the delivery time allotted to a block; they can now spread the number of packages to more couriers that will finish their blocks easily and before the allotted delivery time.

Deactivation

Quite a few couriers have stated that they do get reprimanded by FC employees and occasionally receive e-mail notices. There are two kinds of deactivation, permanent and temporary. Temporary deactivation is usually from too many late deliveries; customers did not receive their delivery, undeliverable packages or deliveries not returned to Amazon on time, working for others during an Amazon Flex Block or pressing the "I'm at the location, but my GPS isn't working" too often when starting a block. Permanent Deactivation comes from too many missed blocks or shifts and being late repeatedly for a block or shift.

The actual number of times couriers have been deactivated is usually low, since most of the applicants are seriously trying to find part-time work to supplement their daytime job, or in some instances, full-time delivery work. Amazon, like most other companies, does have a boilerplate email for these occasions, and it is an impersonal statement that the courier had violated the terms of service that were agreed upon when signing the independent contractor contract.

Some of the wording in an Amazon Flex contract includes: "may provide Amazon with data about your use of such Licensed Materials, your geo-location and related tracking data, including your location, movements, speed at which you are traveling, and other personally identifiable information, if you choose to deny Amazon access to this information, this could affect the availability and functionality of the Amazon Flex App and your participation in the Program."

This information is actually quite critical for Amazon since it provides the company with key metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPI's) which are an industry standard used by supply chain logisticians to calculate how the performance standards of the service are being met. The accumulated information is diagnosed, usually not in an individual case, but as a local and national aggregate study to provide insight into the delivery process and how efficient it is. When couriers step out of the boundaries, out of what are considered norms, then they will be scrutinized on an individual basis.

Cheating

There seems to be some "cheating" happening when using the Flex app; drivers have sought out contingency apps that pop up now and then. Such as FRep and Repetitouch, which are used to help drivers appropriate blocks faster than couriers without the add-on app. Most of the couriers working for Amazon Flex know of or use these types of apps. While the software does violate the terms of service, it does not seem to bother Amazon HQ, since, at the end of the day, they want their parcels delivered, and it is not an issue whether one courier "stole" the block from another, so long as the deliveries were made on time. Obviously, Amazon won't confirm this. Instead, they state that it is a violation of the terms of service and if they catch a courier using such an app they will deactivate him.

Tim McDaniel, a former Flex courier, developed Flexbot, which is a pair of Arduino-controlled mechanical fingers that cost around $130 and were used to help him with his arthritis. This gadget does not violate the terms of service and as such allows a courier access to the Flex app without touching the screen during driving.

Another issue with blocks are the times they are released. During the past they were released at 10am every day in advance, now the blocks are released totally randomly, and this causes friction and uncertainty amongst the various couriers, all competing for more blocks. Couriers now constantly check their phones for blocks, which obviously leads them to use the third party software.

Uncertainty

Another issue that arises from the "independent contractor" style of employment is the psychology in the workplace. An FC manager can like or dislike a person; they will find ways to deactivate them as soon as possible. Therefore, couriers have no real workplace protection. In some area's where the FC manager or warehouse manager is hot-headed, you tend to find a lot of terminations and turnover of couriers. Such actions can come from any number of real or virtual causes including all the variety of infractions possible, from customer's claiming that their parcel was stolen to damaged packages, and Amazon will always believe the customer over the courier.

Social Media

Due to the constant battle for survival in the ever hostile Flex workplace, drivers have set up social media accounts on sites such as Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube. They create a following that can reach scales of even 20,000 members. The reason these groups are important for survival is due to the way Amazon Flex updates its terms of service, which happens once every six weeks or so, and the change is not transmitted in a direct email or in-app notice, it is buried in the updated terms of service.

The problem with many drivers is how to contend with Amazon Flex support service. How they can dispute deactivation. One driver summed up the harrowing instance of contesting the deactivation process.

You can use one of two ways to contest your deactivation. Either use the online Qualtrics form that was sent with the deactivation email, and you cannot contact Amazon Flex through the usual ways since your deactivation will close your account, phoning them won't help, you can only request reactivation through this e-mail: amazonflex-appeals@amazon.com

Stop and think before rushing off to reply using the Qualtrics form that was attached to your de-activation email. You have ten calendar days to reply, so take a day or two to go over the reason why you were deactivated and then word your reply in a way that will be polite, to the point and apologize for the reason. Don't try to spin any tales, keep your reasons to facts, tell them you will fix the issue that was the main reason or one of three possible reasons (they usually give a courier three strikes) and that you have learned from your mistakes and will improve and maintain a quality service.

I suggest you segment the reply according to the following outline: Acknowledge the fault, Give a brief history of your past delivery performance and behavior, Explain why you like working for Amazon Flex, Deliver a closing statement explaining how you have improved and learned from your mistakes

Remember that you only have one chance to reply, so take your time and make it a good response.

While it does state on their site that Amazon Flex can take up to three weeks to respond, cases have been reported that reinstatement occurred overnight. While the reinstatement can be quick the app activation does take a day or two, so don't panic if you still don't have access, wait until you get an activation e-mail and then you can start working again. Once you receive the email, you will have to wait a few more hours before the reactivation starts. Do NOT try to set up a block for that day, only schedule blocks AFTER full reactivation. You do not want to be in a situation where you miss a block immediately after activation.

Another driver summed up the Amazon Flex support issue stating that drivers can contact support through the e-mail used to sign up for the services. This e-mail address is amazonflex-support@amazon.com. There is no best time to e-mail, and they do tend to respond to e-mails within 24 hours. This is the best and safest option for contact, since it is recorded, and all questions and answers can be date tagged for future reference.

Amazon Flex also offers an online Q&A session. There are two daily online Q&A sessions for drivers and they both last around two hours. The first starts at 1 pm EST and the second start at 4pm EST. Drivers log in, and the sessions offer help with the account and the app. If you have any personal issues, it is not advised to deal with them here. This is the best place for in-depth questions about the use of the Flex App and for understanding how to use your account.

I guess that this is either a State secret or its just ambiguous information trying to hide the number from drivers so that they don't inundate the service with many calls. However, there are two support phone numbers available to drivers, one is the Amazon flex support phone number and the second is the Amazon flex customer service number

The Amazon Flex Support number is: 1-877-472-7562

This number is only for drivers and can be used when working a shift or block. If you are not working, then do not call this number. The service representatives will only help you with current order issues or with an immediate previous order problem such as reporting a late delivery or other delivery problems that you need to notify about. The Amazon Flex Customer Service number is 1-877-212-6150. This number is for non-working drivers when you are not on a shift or block and need to discuss account issues. The representatives cannot and will not discuss any order or delivery related issues with you.

Fleet or Armada?

Another issue with Amazon Flex courier driving is the use of delivery fleets that are starting to impact the effectivity of individual drivers and taking a lot of the work. Local delivery companies such as UPS and FedEx as well as other less known names are being contracted by Amazon Flex to deliver large amounts of packages that cannot fit into an average family car. These "White Vans' are becoming more frequently used.

The difference between driving for a fleet or driving for yourself is negligible since fleet drivers have two bosses, the fleet owner who the driver pays a base fee for the vans use and Amazon Flex that pays the delivery fees the same way they would to an individual contractor. Feet drivers have a choice to employ their drivers or rent out their cars to individual contractors. Amazon Flex retains the right to accept fleet drivers the same application way they do individual drivers. Amazon Flex is not considered to be a threat to companies such as FedEx and UPS since these companies do not deal in online shopping, they are only courier services, and in the case of FedEx and UPS own their own fleet of transportation ranging from bikes to intercontinental commercial aircraft. So, in fact, Amazon, which does not invest in logistics hardware (vehicles) is a perfect partner to these companies and not a rival. Delivery companies can offer a solid income for some couriers that prefer it as a full-time job. They give an employment framework rather than a contractual one. However, they will still need to go through an Amazon background check.

Legal Issues

One attorney (of many) stated that she thinks that Amazon is breaking the law stated that there are unanswered questions relating to mass contractor employment models used in the ridesharing industry. Labor law specialists claim that gig delivery companies, as well as ridesharing companies, treat the drivers and couriers as independent contractors, but micromanage them like employees. The difference between an employee and an independent contractor can be seen in a few key performance features that include the specialization required to perform the action, the right to control the amount of work being done and how the business integrates its payment system. When viewing these differences, the contracts that bind Amazon Flex couriers to the company come under question.

Amazon Flex micromanages its couriers down to the level of which delivery to make first and how many hours can be worked in a week. It is no longer an open relationship, but a well defined one, with serious metrics and serious control over performance. In fact, the level to which a courier can be dismissed is far stricter than found in many standard non-unionized businesses.

One of the reasons that Amazon Flex and other such gig employment companies have not had their day in court is due to the arbitration clause in the contract. Once an adult has consented to the clause, it means that the person has accepted that it will work in the conditions laid down and changed on occasion to what the company may decide. If there are disputes, they will be discussed in private arbitration. If an applicant doesn't accept this clause, then they cannot sign on to work for the company. It is not illegal to constrain an applicant to agree to a private arbitration clause. The only way that Amazon Flex can be forced to change the way it contracts its contractors is with state or federal regulations and laws forcing them to either change the way contractors are managed or only enable them to employee couriers in a full employment contract.

Amazon Flex is not alone, and legislators tend to shy away from dealing with this issue, mainly since it would become a major issue trying to force large companies such as Amazon, Uber, Lyft and others to directly employ people. In fact, that might even prove to be unconstitutional, the only other way to combat the issue would be to define how an independent contractor can be managed clearly, and to set clear minimum wage levels for independent contractors too. Legislators should also consider how to force full employment status social packages such as medical insurance, pensions schemes and such as the "gig" independent contractor contract.

The Future

Some couriers claim that Amazon will control the courier industry within the next decade. We find this to be a little childish and premature to consider. The reasons are simple, while Amazon is large, it is not the only company online. It will never control the market since market automatically resists control. The same way that Microsoft is not a monopoly, it might be big, but it's not the only company in operating system software, so with Amazon. It is not the only online shopping service, and it does not control all delivery options. Courier services are for every sector of industry and not just online shopping. The naivety of couriers can overcloud their judgment.

While couriers are concerned about how quickly Amazon Flex will deactivate them for any number of reasons, they should remember that there are a lot of courier services and gig delivery services available and constantly seeking independent contractors to provide services. So, no matter how big Amazon Flex grows over the next decade, there will always be more and more delivery work to be handled.

Having stated this, the constant shift in how Amazon Flex operates and the rising number of similar gig companies employing hundreds of thousands if not over a million independent contractors will in itself bring about some kind of major movement of change in the state of their employment.