One of my favorite late night jokes, from a host who’s name I can’t recall – probably Colbert – went something like this:
“Well, it’s President’s Day, and you know what that means. It means the Christmas gifts I ordered on Etsy have started to arrive.”
Yes, Etsy sellers had long had a reputation for, perhaps, not being as expedient in their shipping procedures as their customers might hope. But that was, in some way, part of the charm of buying from independent artisans versus a rock-steady, efficient Amazon. With some focused campaigns to its sellers, emphasizing the need to set customer expectations properly, Etsy made real progress in addressing the slow shipping perception. However, this year, Etsy seller forums are lighting up with panicked shop owners who fear that the USPS’ widespread shipping delays will affect their livelihoods if angry customers leave negative reviews due to delayed orders.
The COVID-19 pandemic had been a bit of a boon for independent commerce retailers, including those Etsy sellers and other small commerce business owners. But when new USPS policies went into effect in June, the USPS’ on-time delivery rate plummeted from 91% to 82%. USPS Priority Mail, a cost-effective staple for small business, went from promising 2-3 day delivery to your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine. Personally, I currently have four USPS Priority Mail packages, all shipped weeks ago, somewhere out in the nebulous postal system, with the only tracking information available, simply this:
Nebulous indeed. And to be clear, the USPS isn’t the only carrier struggling with pandemic-related delivery issues. UPS and FedEx reported that the surge in online orders from locked-down consumers was creating significant shipping delays during the holidays.
On the other hand, Amazon, which struggled with order fulfillment during the first wave of the pandemic, has bounced back by deploying a network of contracted delivery professionals driving branded Amazon vans, which have descended on America’s cities and suburbs seemingly overnight. As one NYC-based client noted on a recent pre-Christmas inquiry call, “they’re idling on every corner in the city right now”. Indeed, when my daughter’s aftermarket laptop AC adapter literally caught fire two days after Christmas, Amazon had one on my doorstep the following day.
What does this mean for consumers’ “Amazon Ambivalence” – a trend we started tracking back in 2018? As Kate Muhl notes in her “A Look Back: 5 Long-Term Consumer Trends Newly Relevant in 2021” (clients can access here), while 92% of American consumers are Amazon customers, by May of 2020 (after that first COVID wave) their attitudes towards Amazon were changing for the worse, with significant increases in those reporting they were concerned about the negative effect the company had on other businesses, and worry that reliance on the commerce giant was becoming too much.
Yet as the virus continues to surge across the country, and widescale vaccine distribution months off, Amazon may win back those that had their faith shaken last spring. And with a growing direct to consumer distribution network (100,000 more electric vans are on the way) it may further engrain itself as the go-to shopping platform. The irony, of course, is that the current administration’s designs on its own “Amazon Ambivalence” may have been short circuited by those changes to the USPS back in June.
Meanwhile, those Etsy sellers wait anxiously for the reviews to start coming in.