Amazon Holiday Delivery Woes: Send In the Drones!

Today, the company doesn't control how quickly you get your stuff. Tomorrow, who knows?

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A few weeks ago, my mother was complaining about how erratic Amazon had gotten. She uses it to order everything from holiday gifts to household sundries like paper towels. And she told me that the delivery service had recently become annoyingly unreliable.

I confess that my impulse was to wonder if she was exaggerating. I buy a ton of merchandise from Amazon too, and generally find it to be one of the most predictable large companies I deal with.

Then, all of a sudden, almost all of my own Amazon orders failed to arrive on time. (Sorry, Mom, for doubting your account.) It turned out we had lots of company. Here’s GeekWire’s Todd Bishop reporting on UPS and FedEx delays, caused by heavy volume and weather, which prevented some deliveries meant to arrive by Christmas Eve from showing up on time.

As Bishop writes, Amazon took the glitches seriously. I was among the customers who received an e-mail apologizing and explaining that a $20 credit was being automatically applied to my account to make up for any disappointment.

To recap my recent problems — which are interesting only because this sort of stuff almost never happens:

— I paid for overnight delivery of a toy for a charitable drive at work. OnTrac, the delivery firm, got it to within a few miles of the UPS Store mailbox where I was having it delivered. Then it was “out for delivery” for another week, by which time the donation delivery had passed, and I’d bought a duplicate at a nearby Barnes & Noble.

— I also paid extra for Saturday delivery of a camera I’d ordered to take photos of my niece and nephew over the holiday. It didn’t get there: the UPS delivery person said the shipping address — the aforementioned UPS Store — didn’t exist. Then when UPS managed to find the location on Monday and dropped off the box, another UPS delivery person mistook it for an outgoing package and took it away again.

— I ordered batteries and a charger for my camera. Amazon said they were supposed to arrive by Christmas Eve, but OnTrac only dropped them off today.

I haven’t been keeping careful track, but I think that may add up to more Amazon problems in the past two weeks than I’d experienced in 15 years as a customer.

Amazon did its best to do right by me. For the first two shipments, I e-mailed the company and explained what went wrong. It refunded the entire cost of the toy, and didn’t ask me to return it once it finally showed up. For the camera, it refunded the Saturday delivery charge. The third delayed delivery was the one that prompted the company to proactively apologize and give me a $20 credit.

And here’s the kicker: Amazon was charging $19.99 for the batteries and charger, which means that the 20-buck refund paid for them, with a penny left over.

Now, I understand that none of these delays were Amazon’s fault; they all involved mishaps on the part of the delivery companies it employs, all of which normally meet their deadlines. (There may have been extenuating circumstances beyond the season and the weather: someone at my UPS Store told me that the UPS guy who couldn’t find the store was a newbie.) None of them came anywhere near to ruining my Christmas, and I think the odds are high that Amazon will go back to being its usual, remarkably reliable self.

But it got me thinking: delivery is at least as important a part of the experience that Amazon offers as anything else, and it’s one aspect that it can’t control, since it’s all outsourced. Anyone who thinks to blame UPS or FedEx or OnTrac or the U.S. Postal Service for delivery problems is paying more attention than anyone should be expected to pay. It’s Amazon that bears the burden of making customers happy.

Which means that if the company does indeed start delivering some products by Prime Air drone, which it designs and operates itself, it won’t just be a noteworthy development because it involves an army of miniature, autonomous flying devices. It’ll also be an experience that Amazon can manage itself, from the moment consumers arrive at and start shopping until packages land on their doorsteps.

In fact, once Amazon starts building drone-friendly distribution centers all over, wouldn’t it make sense to use those same centers for almost-as-speedy delivery by trucks owned and operated by Amazon? No matter how quickly Prime Air becomes reality, there are going to be an awful lot of products that a drone won’t be able to deal with, for a long time to come.

In a roundabout way, the prospect reminds me of Apple’s decision, more than a decade ago, to open its own retail stores rather than depend on third parties to excel at selling its products. And if Amazon makes a move to cut out third-party delivery, even if it’s just for a subset of orders, it could have at least as big an impact on commerce.