Disgruntled Amazon customers are complaining that their packages keep arriving late, and it could be an ominous sign for Prime
- Some Amazon Prime customers are fuming, claiming the company has repeatedly delayed their shipments and backtracked on the two-day-shipping guarantee that comes with membership.
- But the data shows that Amazon has actually sped up the process of getting packages to customers.
- It's likely Amazon's delivery times are getting better, on average, but the sheer volume of customers could be leading to an uptick in customer complaints.
- Still, experts speculate that the proliferation of new Amazon delivery services could be leading to a disconnect with customers, many of whom might just not get how Prime really works.
- Either way, it's not great news for Amazon, which is trying to attract even more people to Prime.
A growing chorus of customers are claiming that Amazon is not holding up its end of the two-day-shipping bargain. They've said that Amazon is slipping up with greater frequency: Packages are late leaving warehouses and delayed in shipment without explanation.
At the same time, data provided to Business Insider by Slice Intelligence showed that Amazon's speed and consistency are actually improving when viewed on a large scale.
So what's going on?
Experts who spoke with Business Insider said it was highly unlikely that Amazon would be slowing shipments on purpose. Instead, it's likely a combination of factors - including that Amazon has a constantly growing member base of 100 million people, that it's often introducing new services, and that Prime's free two-day-shipping guarantee is misunderstood by many customers.
There are plenty of complaints about delayed Amazon shipments on social media
The complaints can be seen on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook - and even from a writer at Lifehacker.
"Honestly, how many threads have to discuss this?" one Reddit user wrote. "Yes, Amazon's shipping speed is slowing down. They are taking longer and longer to get your packages to the carriers."
While it seems unlikely that that's true across the board, the perception that Amazon is slowing even for Prime members could be a real concern, especially considering that the company just raised the price of an annual membership, to $119 from $99, and the monthly membership, to $12.99 from $10.99.
Customers who spoke with Business Insider said they noticed in recent months that their Amazon shipments were coming later and later. They claimed that guaranteed delivery times were being missed, orders were being delayed with little explanation, and packages were taking longer to get packed and passed off to carriers.
John Ronquillo, a pubic-affairs professor at the University of Colorado Denver, said he had noticed "a decline" in Prime shipping speed.
"For the most part, people are making these purchases as it seems to be a perk of being a Prime customer, and for the convenience of it - and the convenience is starting to slip away," Ronquillo said.
As one example, Ronquillo pointed to a time in April when he ordered a book - Amazon's bread and butter - that was delayed twice, then never arrived. Amazon resent the book at no additional cost, and it did eventually arrive, but it was ultimately too late for Ronquillo, who had intended to give the book as a gift.
A common response from Amazon's customer-service Twitter account reiterates Prime's guarantee: that two-day shipping ensures only that customers will get it in two days from the time it's handed over to the carrier, not two days from the time of ordering, which is often incorrectly assumed.
"Prime Two-Day Shipping refers to the amount of time it takes for your item to arrive once it's been processed and shipped. Some items have longer processing times than others," the guarantee reads.
But some customers claimed that items that appear to be in stock were taking longer to get to carriers - and that Amazon was pointing to the specific language of its Prime guarantee as evidence that nothing is amiss.
These customers claim that Amazon was previously very swift about getting Prime shipments packed and over to carriers so that customers would actually get their packages in two days from order.
"What they've done is set an expectation for Prime ... that people would get the items they ordered very quickly, and certainly within two days typically of order," Brandon Muramatsu, a frequent Amazon customer, told Business Insider. "They're now underdelivering on their promise, whereas they may have been overdelivering before."
Some customers have been left wondering whether this is a new norm for their relationship with Amazon, or whether the company got customers used to a level of service that was ultimately unsustainable.
Data shows a different side to the story
Data shared with Business Insider by Slice Intelligence shows a different side to the story.
Amazon's shipping speeds have gotten faster over the past year, the data showed. That includes both the time it takes for Amazon to pack a box and hand it over to a courier, or "click to ship," and the time it takes the box to get to customers from the order time, or "click to door."
Jenny Cheng/Business Insider
The data also showed that in December it took about a day, on average, to pack a box and send it to the carrier from the time the customer placed the order. By March that was down to about seven-tenths of a day - a staggering increase in efficiency and the quickest Amazon has shipped orders since at least January 2017.
Click-to-door times have also decreased from about three days in November and December to an average of 2.7 days in March. Ship-to-door times have remained roughly consistent, plus or minus a tenth of a day.
Slice aggregates data from its panel of millions of shoppers and uses their receipts to display the data in aggregate. And though the data is not linear, it shows a clear trend in the direction of greater efficiency on Amazon's part. Some individual customers may be having issues with Amazon, but the data does not bear that out on a greater scale.
Jenny Cheng/Business Insider
Jenny Cheng/Business Insider
The customer is always right
Logistics experts who spoke with Business Insider said it was unlikely that Amazon would make an abrupt change in how it operated, as switching its focus from pleasing the customer would be a dramatic departure.
"Knowing how customer-centric Amazon is, and how they work from the customer backward, it would go against their 'Amazon flywheel,'" Eddie Levine, president of logistics consultancy Wholesale Breakthrough, told Business Insider. "Everything revolves around the customer. If it negatively impacts the customer experience, they wouldn't do it."
But even when anecdotes and data disagree, the anecdotes still matter, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said in the past. Bezos still reads customer complaints sent to email@example.com. The email address is one of the ways Bezos says close to his customers, and it fuels his customer-obsessed mindset. (He recently used it to help reunite an Amazon customer with his stolen puppy.)
"The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There's something wrong with the way you are measuring it," he said during an interview at the George Bush Presidential Center in April.
Amazon customer service often steps in to make things right when customers complain on social media, offering refunds in the form of credit to their accounts, resending items free of charge, or even giving people free Prime memberships.
In a statement to Business Insider, Amazon reiterated its customer-service policy.
"We work closely with our delivery partners to ensure Amazon Customers receive the fast and reliable delivery experience they expect. Should the need arise Amazon Customer Service is available at www.amazon.com/help to answer any delivery related questions," an Amazon spokesman said.
So what's really going on?
The reason for the apparent uptick in Amazon customer complaints is likely a combination of factors.
Amazon is winning the online-shopping race by a mile, with Bezos revealing in his most recent letter to shareholders that there are now more than 100 million paid Prime members. Analysts estimate it takes almost half of online shopping in the US and is poised to grow larger.
As Amazon rakes in more online customers and purchases, the number of customers who see slipups in Amazon's service is bound to increase.
Plus, the complexity of some of its services, both ones that are newer and ones that have been around a while, could be contributing to customer confusion.
The first is Prime itself. Prime two-day shipping refers to the time an item leaves a warehouse. That's different from how some customers understand their Prime benefits, which is getting it in exactly in two days. In fact, packages can take up to a day to process and sort, or longer if Amazon needs to move items between fulfillment centers before sending them to the carrier.
Amazon also recently launched and expanded its seller-fulfilled Prime program, which enables certain third-party vendors to sell their merchandise on Amazon.com next to a Prime tag. But these Prime shipments are not sent through Amazon's own system of warehouses. Instead, Amazon has certified that certain warehouses can send packages quickly while meeting the Prime standard.
"I would think the likelihood of it being delayed from those locations because Amazon is not [directly] controlling it would be higher," Levine said.
It might not be obvious on Amazon.com that some Prime items are coming from warehouses that aren't owned by Amazon. Some customers, speaking with Business Insider, did not make a distinction between times when they received orders that had been shipped by Amazon and those that had been shipped by a third party.
"At the moment, there is no way to differentiate that I know of between a product that is Prime and coming from Amazon's warehouse and Prime coming from a seller's warehouse [via Amazon's website]," Levine said. "It's just Prime is Prime."
In a recent change to the seller-fulfilled Prime program, as of May 1, Amazon will not allow sellers in the program to use USPS First-Class shipping - a low-cost way to ship light packages - for one- and two-day shipping orders.
"We are taking this action to maintain the Prime delivery promise to our customers," Amazon told sellers.
Amazon also recently started a new program, "FBA Onsite," in which the retailer helps large sellers on its website set up their own warehouses with Amazon technology and equipment, essentially turning them into versions of their own fulfillment centers. Still, the products are being shipped by a party other than Amazon, and the same risk could apply.
The number of packages shipped using these programs is very small in proportion to Amazon's enormous network of warehouses, however.
Amazon does not promise Prime two-day shipping for some items. Instead, those items, like this package of pens shipped by Amazon, used to declare "FREE Shipping for Prime members." Some customers may have confused that at first glance with two-day shipping, as Prime equals "get it in two days" in many customers' minds.
Amazon has recently changed that label to read "FREE delivery - Longer delivery than typical Prime items." If a customer clicks "learn more," they get an even longer explanation:
"In order for us to bring you the broadest possible selection, some Prime items cannot be delivered in less than 3 business days. Most common reasons include item restricted to ground shipping or requiring extra time to prepare for shipment."
These are items that are usually being stored far from a customer's ZIP code and cannot be transported by plane to make it to a doorstep in two days.
The third possibility is that logistics tracking is not a perfect science yet, and sometimes items are marked as late that show up on time, or are marked as delivered before they actually appear on customers' doorsteps - leading customers to confusion.
Amazon's brand could suffer
Amazon has purposefully forged an emotional connection with consumers through Prime membership, according to Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, who said he doubts that Amazon would purposefully be delaying shipments in the name of frugality.
"Everything that Bezos talks about and writes about suggests the customer experience would trump it," Schiffer said, adding that it would be "shocking" that Amazon would be "in any way traitorous to Prime members."
Still, angry customers are nothing to scoff at, even if their complaints don't add up to a larger conspiracy.
"The last thing you want to do is create any kind of scandalabra, even if it's at the molecular level," Schiffer said. "One angry customer can tell six to 10 people."
Delayed packages aren't enough to slow Amazon down
Still, no customers Business Insider spoke with said they were considering stopping shopping on Amazon. The benefits are just too great to consider leaving, even with the possibility of delays.
There's still no viable online-shopping alternative to Amazon in terms of price or convenience, at least in many customers' minds. "There are worse things that can happen," Ronquillo said. "As long as I get it, I'll be fine."
Still, it's a worrying trend for some Amazon customers as the company moves into developing more advanced technology and delivery techniques.
"I do have to laugh on occasion when I think of drone delivery," Ronquillo went on. "If we're focusing on delivery by drone but we can't quite get the two-day shipping down, it makes me wonder where we're going. Are we running before we can walk?"
What's up @Amazon all of our orders now late. Was due yesterday, then today, now out for delivery, to arrive Dec 3-5? Shipment didn't depart @Ups facility until today? Ordered Thursday. #Prime loyal customer- Pam Moore (@PamMktgNut) December 3, 2017