October 12, 2012

Faster delivery, same crappy ethics


Your delivery of socks, toothpaste and union-busting is here!

Walmart is ramping up their war against Amazon. The battlefield this time around: same-day shipping.

As reported in the Times and the Wall Street Journal, Tuesday Walmart announced  that they’re widening the scope of an already ongoing trial program to provide customers with same-day shipping in specific urban centers for a flat rate of ten dollars. New York City, still successful in keeping the retailer out of the five boroughs, is not yet one of those.

The program remains limited at this point, to specific locations but also to specific products. As of now, Walmart will bring electronics, toys, fitness gear and home supplies to you, using its stores as warehouses. While this will no doubt entail a certain amount of reworking of their existing back-room infrastructure, the main question will be whether this effort is, in fact, worth the cost. Even with some of the worst labor practices in the country, Walmart will be incurring some serious staffing costs to get items to consumers as little as a day earlier in many cases. Will a difference of that magnitude drive customers to buy everything from Walmart online rather than, say, a bodega around the corner?

If the move is seen instead as a salvo against the ubiquity of Amazon then the whole enterprise may well make more sense. Amazon has also begun experimenting with same-day shipping. Indeed, it was part of the bait they dangled before consumers when waging a public image battle about state sales tax issues. In essence: “Don’t charge us tax, we’ll build a shipping hub in your state, you may get this dog frisbee faster.” Walmart, however, has about four thousand stores to serve as potential shipping hubs, in comparison with Amazon’s forty, where they can draw on already-stocked inventory to fulfill orders.

One of the ironies here is that many urban independent booksellers have always offered same-day shipping. Grocery stores, too. They tend to call it by an older name: delivery. In the best of all possible cityscapes, each neighborhood would have one or more bookstores and those stores would each serve a given area. If you live near a bookstore and the booksellers know you, most would be willing to walk some books over to you, whether it is their stated policy or not. Again we find ourselves in a strange twilight territory, where these enormous chains devour the smaller stores whose decency and affection for their customers made up a thing we call “community”, but then find themselves struggling to provide the same services at great expense and trouble.

It reminds me of nothing so much as industrial forest, logged out and desultorily replanted in savage straight rows of scrub pine, silent monoculture deserts where a vibrant world once stood. Notionally a forest, yes, in that there are trees; notionally a bookstore, yes, in that there are books. This latest same-day shipping effort, while it is important as an indicator of more directly competitive policies between Walmart and Amazon, in the end means little: for the vast swaths of the country where same-day delivery will remain infeasible, for the striking Walmart workers in twenty-eight stores across twelve states  and for those of us who know that even better than having a flatscreen television delivered to your home is having a vibrant ecosystem of retailers around your home.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.