In the early days of the pandemic, Sarah Graham developed a slight Amazon problem.
Furloughed from her job and stuck at home, Graham had ample time on her hands. So she began shopping. She bought sweat pants, makeup, and face masks. She picked up spice racks and shelving units for her new condo. A headband organizer she saw on TikTok? Yes. And yes to a bed, sweaters, and treats for her new dog, a miniature dachshund named Willow.
“I probably was buying five or six things a week for the first month or so, which is so embarrassing,” she said recently. Every time a package was in transit, her Echo device would light up, with Alexa calmly announcing that one of several packages would soon arrive.
The delivery system that brought those packages to Graham’s Stoneham home — and millions like it — has been 25 years in the making, a finely tuned network of analytics and algorithms and artificial intelligence that anticipates and fulfills the whims of the world as quickly as possible. Already sprawling, it has exploded this pandemic year in Greater Boston, and places like it, where Amazon is opening warehouses at a breakneck pace, to get those packages to us even faster.
“Amazon’s whole goal, and Amazon’s whole strategy is to have things as close to you as possible,” said Mikey Vu, a retail, supply chain, and analytics analyst at Bain & Co. “They want to go faster and faster and faster, with more and more items. It’s really hard to keep up with that.”
At no time in the company’s history was that speed more important than it is now. Nine months into a global health crisis, buying online has become the default shopping strategy for many people, especially during the holiday season as COVID-19 runs rampant. In 2019, the company delivered about 2.5 billion packages in the US — roughly 20 for every household — a number analysts expect to jump by 20 percent or more this year.
As mammoth as Amazon is, this rush has posed logistical challenges for the company. In the early days of the pandemic, it struggled to keep up with delivery targets. Since then, the company has regained its stride, and sales have soared. In the three months ending Sept. 30, Amazon reported $6.3 billion in profits, nearly triple what it earned in the same period last year. Chief executive Jeff Bezos is now worth more than $185 billion.
“It’s kind of a madness,” said Michael Cusumano, a deputy dean at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “As more have gone to shop on Amazon because we’re homebound, the need for more warehouses and delivery trucks and more warehouse and delivery personnel has just grown.”
And Amazon is counting on things never going back to the way they were.
That’s why it’s betting big on a web of warehouses and delivery centers in major US cities, a shipping network on a scale never before seen. By the end of 2020, industry analysts expect, Amazon will have added roughly 100 million square feet of warehouse space to its portfolio, a 50 percent jump from what it had just one year ago.
In Eastern Massachusetts, that means converting the former Lucent Technologies plant in North Andover into a vast sorting center. It means taking over the old Necco factory in Revere as a shipping hub. It means scooping up warehouses in industrial parks from Wilmington to Everett to Canton, for “last-mile” shipping centers ― places where boxes can be brought in overnight and dropped on doorsteps by lunchtime.
In all, Amazon controls about 10 million square feet of industrial space in Greater Boston, according to the real estate firm Colliers. It has at least 20 locations, and tentative deals in place for more. With the market for warehouse space drum-tight in the region, said Dion Sorrentino, a research analyst at Colliers, Amazon is locking down options for leases first and figuring out later which spaces it actually wants to use.
“They’re moving so fast,” Sorrentino said. “They’re taking any space they can to fulfill their needs, and because they’re Amazon, landlords are willing to play ball.”
Their potential neighbors, though, aren’t always so welcoming.
As Amazon reaches deeper into the core of the region, it’s facing pushback from wary residents in some of the places where it wants to grow. That resistance has complicated expansion efforts.
Last year, the company scrapped plans for a 250,000-square-foot last-mile hub in Braintree after sparring with town officials over requirements that contract drivers put signs on their vehicles. (The idea was that it would help officials track traffic generated by delivery runs.) In November, Amazon abandoned plans for a 96,000-square-foot facility in South Boston’s Andrew Square after city officials said it didn’t fit with zoning plans. Labor groups have targeted the company’s enormous project in North Andover ― where Amazon will turn a vast telecom plant that once employed 12,000 into a 3.8 million-square-foot distribution center to serve Eastern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire ― highlighting concerns over pay and working conditions. And in Dedham, negotiations have dragged for months over Amazon’s bid to expand a busy warehouse on Sprague Street, just south of the Boston city line.
Planning Board members and some Dedham residents say they’re sick of the company’s blue delivery vans and trucks winding through the curvy residential streets.
“Your trucks are not inconspicuous. You have to fix the problem,” Planning Board chairman John Bethoney told Amazon officials at a Planning Board meeting earlier this fall. “It’s not like this is going to slide by without being noticed.”
Indeed, for residents who live on the routes Amazon’s trucks take to the warehouses, there’s no escaping the impact.
Karen Palumbo moved into her home off Sprague Street in Dedham 10 years ago. It backed onto a small industrial park that included Macy’s and Restoration Hardware warehouses. The companies’ operations were so quiet, Palumbo said, she barely knew they were there. Then Amazon arrived.
Now every morning, according to a traffic study filed with the town, 218 Amazon vans come and go. In the afternoons, waves of contract drivers — about 70 per day — come through in their personal cars. Every night, 18 or so big rigs arrive with the next day’s packages. Palumbo sleeps with a white noise machine to muffle the sound, and uses blackout curtains to block the floodlights that bathe the parking lot. She sees trucks stopped on the road outside all the time. Sometimes, her house rumbles.
“I have this running joke,” she said. “Is that an earthquake? No, it’s just another Amazon truck.”
Of course, the impact of Amazon’s ever-faster distribution network extends well beyond its immediate neighbors.
Those trucks and delivery vans skirt main streets and town centers where countless retailers have gone bust. As they get on the highways, they pass the husks of empty big-box stores and malls that are fading fast.
Ironically, Amazon ― whose success has come at the expense of countless brick-and-mortar stores ― is now looking to fill those vacant spaces. The Wall Street Journal reported this summer that the company is in talks with mall giant Simon Property Group about taking over the leases of emptied-out Sears and J.C. Penney stores that once anchored suburban shopping centers.
In Worcester, it’s planning to acquire an entire mall, according to the Worcester Business Journal, which recently reported that Amazon is negotiating to take over the Greendale Mall, which has just one store left open. Greendale owner Finard Properties wouldn’t comment on the deal, but if it goes through, it would be the first mall-to-warehouse conversion in New England, according to real estate firm CBRE. It likely won’t be the last, CBRE says.
But despite these formidable plans, Amazon’s competitors aren’t giving up without a fight.
Walmart and Target have also seen record-breaking sales during the pandemic, and are reimagining their stores — already in prime locations — as distribution hubs for local deliveries and parking lot pickups. Walmart launched its own Prime-like membership, Walmart Plus, in September, and use of Target’s same-day delivery service, Shipt, has tripled.
All of which means more warehouses, more trucks, more traffic, and ― very likely ― less sleep for folks like Palumbo. Shopping habits born during months of virus fears and stay-home orders won’t go away any time soon. If anything, we’ll see them expand alongside the resurgence of COVID-19 cases this winter, said Nada Sanders, a professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University. Amazon is spending a fortune on the premise that they’re here to stay.
“They want to exploit this,” Sanders said. “The door is opened, we’re not going to be able to go back.”