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SEATTLE—For years, Amazon’s worst-kept secret has been its interest in becoming a brick-and-mortar grocery company. After building permit leaks and employee-only beta tests, the online retailer’s first public stab at grab-and-go groceries (grab-and-gro?) launched in its home city of Seattle on Friday.
Amazon Fresh Pickup is now open in two Seattle locations, and its premise is simple: take the concept of Amazon Fresh (which delivers grocery orders to your door), then invite the customer to double as his or her own deliveryman. Since I was keen on seeing exactly how it works and happen to live 10 minutes from one of the locations, I decided to make up a Memorial Day-specific food order.
My first impression was nothing but smooth. For those customers whose grocery shopping matches Amazon’s Fresh Pickup vision, they’re in for a treat. But for everyone else, don’t rev your engines just yet.
Sonic Drive-in Prime?
The standard delivery Fresh service only exists in 16 cities right now: 14 US metropolitan centers and the cities of Tokyo and London. That selection of markets doesn’t get the red-carpet treatment in discovering Amazon Fresh, either. To use it, Amazon customers have to incur an extra $15 monthly charge, even on top of a paid Amazon Prime membership, along with a “free shipping” order requirement of $40.
The best part of Fresh Pickup, honestly, is that it kicks those charges to the curb. You don’t have to pay for shipping, handling, or any store-related fees (beyond normal local taxes). You don’t have to order a minimum amount. You do have to pay for Amazon Prime, but for those who eventually live in a Fresh Pickup city, the $99/year subscription fee they’re paying may become a little more attractive.
The kicker, of course, is that Amazon isn’t doing the Amazon-like thing of delivering things to your door. Instead, you’re expected to drive to a distribution center with a series of drive-in parking spots (like you’d see at a Sonic Drive-In). Pull in, grab your stuff, and get out.
doing so just might save the planet—but I also feel pretty strongly about deals.
Amazon Fresh, by the way, is a strange service in terms of selection. You’re ultimately limited by your region and what distribution agreements Amazon has locked up accordingly. For example, take Amazon Fresh’s selection of hamburger buns in Seattle:
Those are the first six results for “hamburger buns” in my region. Two of them are gluten-free, which some might judge as “not buns at all, good lord,” and one of them is a tomato. The debate may rage about tomatoes’ status as a fruit or vegetable, but its bun-like properties are not up for discussion. (I mean, gosh, Amazon. Put a head of lettuce in that slot for the carb-free, leaf-instead-of-bun crowd, at least.)
In Seattle’s case, at least, if Amazon Fresh carries it, then Amazon Fresh Pickup probably does, too. You can’t tell whether that’s the case or not while browsing, however. Amazon Fresh’s search results depend on whether you’ve picked delivery or pickup before browsing. When I swapped those options with a shopping cart full of various products, I was loudly warned that my options may change. I went ahead with a switch from pickup to delivery, and one lunchmeat item was no longer available, while a ground turkey item dropped in price by less than a dollar.
While selecting items, I was asked to confirm a “pickup window” of two hours. I placed my order before noon, which gave me the above slate of options; my latest option was 10pm while I could be rushed to a “within 15 minutes” window if I were a paying Amazon Fresh subscriber. No thanks—3-5pm is fine. Once I picked my window of time, I had a full hour to lock in an order and payment method, and after that, I had an additional 45 minutes to add and pay for more groceries if I wanted.
I finished my order of a few grilling things: those beef patties, a 3/4-lb. package of chicken breasts, and a few ears of corn. $9.23. I completed the order like I normally would on Amazon, then went about my day.
I didn’t even have to spell my freaking name
At 4:45pm, I realized I’d forgotten all about my Amazon order. Crap.
I drove to the Amazon Fresh Pickup shop in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, arriving a few minutes past 5pm, and I finally noticed that I didn’t receive any reminders or notices about my tardy arrival. I didn’t push my luck to see whether Amazon would eventually nag me to come pick my damned corn up, though I’m also not sure if Amazon charged my account as soon as the order was placed, or whether that transaction was frozen until I’d picked my items up.
Amazon’s Ballard location has about 10 parking spots to pull into, and drivers are encouraged to pull as far forward as they possibly can. The few drivers I saw did not obey this request. I was the only car at the lot when I arrived, so I pulled up to the parking space where an employee was already standing. Her greeting was to the effect of “How can I help you?” as if prepared to talk to someone who had not placed an order. (There is no way to go inside and order or pay for items.)
I mentioned I was ready for my damned corn (no, I didn’t say “damned,” but I love that phrase now). The staffer, wearing a green Amazon apron and holding a giant tablet device in a bulky protective case, simply asked for my name. I said “Sam Muh-SKO-vitch, M, A, C, H—” and she cut me off.
“I have your order ready,” she told me. “Just a second.” She walked away to help the next driver (who also didn’t pull all the way forward), and a door right next to my car opened with another person in a green apron walking forward. This one held a single brown paper sack, smiled, and awkwardly handed the sack to me through my car window (as opposed to offering to pop it into my trunk like in the lovely stock photo on Amazon’s advertising site).
I didn’t have to pull out an app, show off a barcode, pull up an e-mail, recite an order number, or, really, confirm anything about myself. I also didn’t have to deal with any fallout for arriving late. Amazon Fresh Pickup got me in and out with my order about as quickly as I could imagine.
My order didn’t come with a printed receipt. Instead, I received an e-mail confirmation that I had picked my order up (in case I lost track of my own existence and/or someone nabbed it without my permission). The order also didn’t come in a cold-protective bag or with any artificial ice packs, like in some Amazon Fresh delivery boxes. This was a standard brown grocery sack, only with a giant Amazon barcode on it (presumably to identify my order among a slew of many).
Traffic and usability
Seattle’s Ballard location is just off a busy stretch of 15th Ave NW, which is known for being thick with commuters during rush hour as an alternative to our pair of north-south highways. In that respect, it’s an ideal location for commuters who want to place a grocery order in the morning and pick it up on their way home from work. However, if Amazon Fresh Pickup becomes more popular, the lot has zero overflow space for extra cars. Customers will have to wait on 15th Ave NW itself, unless they turn off a block early and approach the store from its opposite side. The parking spots are on a one-way driveway, which further limits incoming-traffic options.
Beyond that, Amazon Fresh Pickup has the same issue as Fresh’s delivery sibling: selection and price. Amazon’s Fresh selection has always been more about convenience than item-by-item savings, and the site does a bad job presenting limited-time discounts and bargains the way a traditional grocery store does. It also utterly lacks the aisle-by-aisle manner of presenting food and discount options to curious shoppers. You have to go into Amazon Fresh with a shopping list—and a backup plan if you run into, say, a meager selection of hamburger buns.watch you shop.)