Soon we'll all be delivery workers for Amazon

As the slowdown turns into a recession and the recession turns into a depression, many of us will be out of work and desperate for employment. Don’t bother trying the restaurant industry. Forget the health-care industry too; no one wants to work in hospitals in the age of corona. Jobs everywhere will either be scarce or scary.

With one exception. One company is hiring.

What I haven’t figured out yet is to whom we’ll be delivering once we’re all warehouse drones earning 15 bucks an hour and getting one pee break a day or whatever. Will Amazon become a niche service for the wealthiest one percent of Americans, the people who had some money left over even after the bat plague infected and killed everyone else’s life savings? Will Lord Bezos simply pay us in Amazon goods, a la South Park’s model of a worker-consumer?

In time I foresee Prime membership including access to your own tiny house conveniently located within walking distance of the warehouse where you work. Inc. plans to hire an additional 100,000 employees in the U.S., according to a company spokesman, as people are turning to online deliveries at a breakneck pace to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus…

With the coronavirus spreading throughout the U.S. and states implementing restrictions on large gatherings, more customers are turning to online shopping for everything from grocery delivery to paper towels, cleaning supplies and daily needs. Amazon, which also owns grocery store chain Whole Foods, was one of the companies President Trump mentioned during his update on the coronavirus on Sunday. Amazon accounts for 39% of all online orders in the U.S., according to eMarketer, and is shouldering a lot of those needs.

“We are seeing a significant increase in demand, which means our labor needs are unprecedented for this time of year,” said Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of operations in a memo reviewed by The Journal.

It’s bound to happen with supermarkets and other delivery services of all stripes too, if not on this scale. Normally where I live you can get next-day delivery on groceries; when I checked last night, every slot had been reserved through March 28. I assume they’ve already added more delivery capacity because when I checked again this afternoon they had availability as soon as next Sunday. Demand will only grow as the crisis deepens and people get even more skittish about entering the store. Whatever the ratio of shoppers to home deliveries was a month ago, say, might end up being reversed a month from now. No doubt restaurants are scrambling to convert wait staff into delivery workers too to try to stay afloat as people begin to shun the physical locations. I wonder how many eateries will still be functioning in six weeks without delivery service or at least curbside service where customers can pick up an order without having to enter a confined space.

In NYC, restaurants are frantic for fiscal relief. Converting to a delivery-only service won’t produce nearly enough customers to sustain them:

“I’ve been telling my staff for three weeks, guys, get ready for a big hit,” Tom Colicchio said. “This is terrible. This is the end of the restaurant business as we know it.”…

[M]any of the fixed expenses of operating a restaurant haven’t stopped. There is still rent to pay, and taxes, like the New York State sales tax bill due on Friday. Those bills alone could crush restaurants in a matter of weeks, unless they have heaps of cash in reserve.

“Postponing or waiving the sales tax would be the fastest way to prop these businesses up without the government going out of pocket,” Jonathan Butler, a founder of Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea, said on Sunday. “The other huge factor is how they treat leases. Most people have some form of personal guarantee on their leases. I can’t imagine as a policy standpoint they want to come out of this crisis and have small business owners losing their homes because they had a personal guarantee. That’s an issue that could be addressed by policy in some fashion.”

It’s already a cliche to say that the coronavirus lockdown will change American behavior forever. The most obvious example is working from home. Some people who’ve never done it before will find that they like it; some businesses that have never tried it before will find that productivity remains solid. People will familiarize themselves with video conferencing software and discover that they can get sufficient amounts of face time with colleagues to do their jobs effectively that way. There’ll be no going back. Hollywood may also start shifting aggressively to pay-per-view options for new releases as weeks and months of empty theaters grind on. Disney’s already decided to release “Frozen 2” to Disney+ subscribers three months early. Industry magazines are speculating about what effect that may have on mainstreaming VOD as a distribution channel going forward.

Is it not also inevitable that having groceries and other goods delivered will become a habit for some people forced to resort to it now by circumstance? Younger Americans are already delivery-savvy but imagine the sixty- or seventysomething who’s always done things the old-fashioned way and now has no choice but to give him or herself a crash course on the universe of delivery options available online. Once you’ve spent a month ordering food or booze — or clothes, or a million other things — and are happy with the results, how much more often will you resort to that method of purchase once things are “normal” again? How many businesses will be forced in time to conclude that it’s not worth it financially to keep so many brick-and-mortar stores open as visitors decline and will end up focusing on online sales instead?

There’ll be no going back. Well, there’ll be some going back. Especially at first, when things reopen and Americans sick with cabin fever burst through their doors for a change of scenery. But the newly acquired comfort level with relying on delivery for all necessities won’t evaporate. Bezos knows it. Those 100,000 hires might prove to be permanent employees. We might as well give him a trillion dollars now and have free Amazon for everyone for the next five years or whatever.

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