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A UPS worker pushing a cart of boxes is seen wearing a mask as he makes his deliveries on an empty NYC street.
Stay-at-home orders mean cities are swamped with internet retailer deliveries.
Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

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Should you be buying that online right now?

Coronavirus reveals the high social cost of internet shopping

Earlier this month, I found myself staring at a pair of Frozen 2-themed shoes with flashing electric blue snowflakes, asking myself, is this essential?

After almost six weeks in quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, my 5-year-old’s toes had grown snug in her old sneakers. Taking her to a local store or resale shop to buy shoes, as I would have pre-COVID-19, clearly wasn’t an option. At the same time, retailers were offering tantalizingly deep discounts to offset the loss of revenue from their shuttered brick-and-mortar shops, making an online purchase even more attractive.

My internet search for shoes framed the larger social dilemma. In one browser window, here was a smoking deal for something I couldn't really buy locally at the moment. In the next window was a story about how Amazon workers were staging weekly sickouts to highlight dangerous labor conditions.

Shelter-in-place orders, compounded with store closures, have swamped the country’s online shopping system, risking the lives of warehouse employees and delivery workers. In response to strikes and protests, Amazon has canceled upcoming promotions to discourage nonessential sales, and some retailers have completely suspended orders to protect their own workers.

As someone who had restrained herself from purchasing much of anything online over the last six weeks, I didn’t want my daughter’s new shoes to put anyone’s health in jeopardy. But seeing the number of delivery trucks on my block, which now account for the only real traffic on our street, it was clear that few of my neighbors were exercising the same restraint. I wondered what a responsible mom caring for a pair of fast-growing feet should do.

I reached out to Sarah Kaufman, who studies how technology and transportation choices affect cities at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management. She’s been confronting a lot of the same dilemmas with her family. She also lives two blocks from a Manhattan hospital, where the wail of ambulances has given her a sobering reminder of the prioritization of essential services during the coronavirus crisis. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that we want and the things that we need,” she told me.

A tiny blue delivery robot with the Amazon Prime logo is seen on the sidewalk in front of a suburban house.
Autonomous robots like this one by Amazon might see a boost from customers seeking contactless delivery.

While we should certainly think carefully about what we’re buying during the pandemic, and how our decisions might impact the health and safety of workers, it’s important to remember that those considerations won’t necessarily go away once the pandemic is over, says Kaufman. Coronavirus is making long-standing concerns about the Amazonification of our economy much more acute. “Online shopping has a profound impact,” she says, “from accelerating the decline of neighborhood shops to deliveries, which, at this point, still need to be carried out by humans.”

Each day, one in eight Americans receives something purchased online, a number that’s expected to double within five years. And Amazon—where about a third of all U.S. online sales are made—has come under increasing criticism, even before the coronavirus pandemic. Untrained delivery drivers under contract with Amazon’s next- or same-day delivery service have been found responsible for dozens of fatal crashes, including the death of the company’s first chief financial officer. Operating oversized vehicles on already crowded streets has exacerbated congestion in cities. Fulfillment centers, which are usually in rural or suburban communities, have become hotbeds of pollution, with the corridors around them dubbed “diesel death zones.”

So the tsunami of packages making their way to people’s doors was already negatively impacting the health and safety of Americans, even before the pandemic. But, as Kaufman pointed out to me, several transformations introduced by the pandemic may end up improving the way deliveries are made.

Fewer overall cars on the street now mean those delivery trucks aren’t idling in traffic, so deliveries are being made much more efficiently, says Kaufman. That means logistics managers can use those empty streets to experiment. One change she’s seeing during the pandemic that might have long-term benefits: policy shifts that prioritize e-bikes for deliveries, which are smaller, nimbler, and safer for city streets. “These e-bike drivers who had been harassed and arrested are suddenly essential workers,” she says. “It’s quite a turnaround.”

The pandemic will likely result in labor reforms for delivery workers, but Kaufman is also seeing increased interest in taking human labor out of the equation—for better or for worse—in the quest for automated, contactless delivery. Before the novel coronavirus, Amazon was testing sidewalk robots and airborne drones, and ongoing infectious disease outbreaks may accelerate the development of such services. In the last few weeks, the autonomous delivery startup Nuro has been taking advantage of the empty streets to deploy a pilot program in California, and drones have been dropping critical medical supplies in remote areas of the U.K.

Deliveries also carry a massive carbon footprint, which the industry has only really begun to address. After Amazon employees orchestrated climate strikes last September, the corporation pledged to make a shift to zero-emission delivery services, including manufacturing 100,000 electric vans and training drivers to operate them. UPS and FedEx are also moving toward electric vehicles, including cargo e-bikes. The impending crisis facing the United States Postal Service has highlighted a tremendous opportunity to use stimulus money to electrify its vehicle fleet, which would save money, create more unionized jobs, and reduce U.S. emissions. “The increase in deliveries during shelter in place has shown us just how important the post office is,” says Kaufman. “Upgrading the service to 21st-century vehicles would be more efficient for the service, and cleaner for the entire country.”

The postal service’s financial woes also demonstrate another issue for those who want to shop online responsibly—most consumers are never offered the choice for how to ship their packages. Increasingly, there aren’t many options left besides Amazon’s delivery networks for some Americans to get basic necessities. Cheap online deliveries, and all of the negative local effects that come with them, are now the only lifeline for many people with disabilities, those who are unable to drive, or households in remote areas. A revitalized USPS might be able to change that dynamic.

As shoppers struggle to balance the convenience and perceived safety of online purchases with the responsibility and risk of supporting neighborhood businesses, the crisis has further exacerbated the economic hardship for local markets and corner stores. This has resulted in many local institutions like bookshops and record stores quickly pivoting to online-only sales, which also might result in long-term changes in the way transactions are made at the neighborhood level. Kaufman points to her local bodega, which embraced contactless payment technology and expanded delivery options to adjust to changing consumer preferences.

As I hovered my cursor over the shoes I’d found for my daughter, I thought about a recent change I’d made in my pre-COVID-19 shopping to reduce vehicle trips and balance those local versus global conundrums. Over the last year I’d started having online purchases shipped to my neighborhood Target, which is one of those smaller “city” versions of the retailer that somehow manages to have almost everything we need. Then I can make a single, zero-emission trip on foot, using a wagon I pull my kids around in, to collect my online purchase and pick up a few groceries at the same time. But in recent weeks, our efforts to minimize our exposure to others had consolidated our shopping trips into a single weekly trip to our local grocery store with more food options, meaning an extra Target outing was out.

I ended up deciding to buy my daughter’s shoes through Zappos, which, as a seasoned online retailer, I felt would be taking the proper precautions for employees without introducing new delivery efforts that might put them at risk. In addition to the Frozen 2 shoes, I added a pair of running shoes for myself (also on sale!) to the cart. I chose the slowest delivery method. To my chagrin, each pair of shoes arrived in separate packages, with the first in the flotilla arriving the very next day, which is, coincidentally, the same day I remembered that Zappos was owned by Amazon.

Kaufman encouraged me not to be too hard on myself, saying even she buys a nonessential online sweatshirt from time to time. “I do think about it,” says Kaufman, “But sometimes I just say, ‘I’m buying this.’” She lives in a 100-unit building and every time a delivery is made, she sees 10 or more packages, which to her seems reasonably efficient.

But she also pointed out something I think is really important to remember. The coronavirus pandemic has created not just a public health crisis, but a mental health crisis as well. The isolation of stay-at-home orders means that, for some people, seemingly nonessential supplies for bread-baking or knitting, or even new running shoes, could actually be quite essential for their own well-being.

“There is something to be said about things you would classify as a want but might be a need—like someone buying paint to repaint their apartment,” says Kaufman. “Right now, it might be keeping them sane to repaint their apartment.”

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