HIAWATHA BRAY | TECH LAB
Jeff Bezos wants the key to your front door. And based on past performance, quite a few of us will hand it over to him.
On Wednesday, Bezos’s company, the giant online retailer Amazon.com, unveiled a service called Amazon Key that will let delivery people put packages inside your home when you’re not there. The $250 system includes a door lock Amazon can unlock remotely when the delivery person arrives and a video camera that customers can use to monitor the delivery from afar.
Amazon insists it’s perfectly safe, saying that all delivery personnel will be thoroughly vetted to ensure they don’t have criminal records. The company says the delivery person will only just reach or step inside the door to leave the package, and the customer has a recorded video of the dropoff to make sure drivers depart empty-handed.
Due to launch in November in Boston and in 36 other US cities, the home-delivery service is Amazon’s latest attempt to solve the “last mile problem” — finding a cheap, safe, and effective way to get a product from the warehouse into the customer’s hands.
Leaving a package on the front porch or inside lobby has resulted in thefts, as many Amazon customers who saw their Christmas shopping last winter go missing can testify. The pickup lockers Amazon has installed in some apartment buildings and convenience stores aren’t a good fit for every building. And scheduling a redelivery for when the customer is home just wastes everyone’s time and money.
Amazon rivals such as Walmart have let online customers grab their orders at their nearest brick-and-mortar store. Amazon hopes to provide similar pickup service at the Whole Foods supermarket chain the company just purchased for $13.7 billion.
Some of us already let Amazon inside our houses — sort of. The company offers Amazon Home Services, which provide customers with all sorts of personal services, such as dog-walkers, computer repair technicians, or electricians, who are screened by Amazon. Someone can even come and replace the tires on your car while you’re at the office.
The Key system is designed to work with Amazon Home Services, too. So now you can have an Amazon handyman come over and assemble that flat-pack furniture the Amazon delivery person left inside your door, and you don’t have to be home for either one.
Logistics analyst Satish Jindel, founder of SJ Consulting Group in Pittsburgh, said Amazon had home access in mind when it bought Whole Foods.
“They want to be able to provide home deliveries of produce and groceries,” said Jindel. That’ll mean walking to the kitchen and stocking the fridge.
The Amazon Key system requires a $99-per-year membership in the Amazon Prime buyers club, plus a one-time purchase of an Internet-connected door lock and video camera for $250. Amazon will install the hardware for free. After a customer places the order, Amazon said, it will remotely unlock the door when the delivery person arrives and trigger the camera to record the delivery; the customer doesn’t have to do anything, but can use an Amazon app to watch the delivery live, or later.
The company says the delivery person will just open the door, put the package inside, close the door, and leave.
Walmart is already testing a rival service in San Francisco with a home-delivery company called Deliv and August Home, which makes Internet-connected door locks. Order groceries from Walmart, and the Deliv worker will enter your house and put your Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on ice.
But Amazon Key is far more ambitious than Walmart’s play. For one thing, it’s about so much more than groceries. In addition, it fits nicely with Amazon’s ongoing effort to weaken the grip of its package delivery partners — the US Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx. The company spent more than $16 billion last year just delivering stuff. To cut costs, Amazon figures it should have more control over the shipping process, so it has leased dozens of cargo planes, purchased thousands of truck trailers, and built up a fleet of home-delivery vans.
Amazon Key fits into the plan. All the drivers in the program will be Amazon employees or contractors who have passed company background checks to ensure they’re not housebreakers or drunk drivers. But it also ensures that if Amazon Key catches on, the company will deliver a larger share of its own parcels.
At first hearing, Amazon Key sounds creepy. But a few years ago, you might have said the same thing about a device that constantly listens to household conversations, waiting for you to request the latest news headlines or a delivery of toilet paper. Creepy or not, Amazon Echo and its Alexa voice-command system are now in more than 10 percent of all American homes, including mine.
We let Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other Internet companies learn pretty much all there is to know about our lives, trusting they won’t abuse the privilege but shrugging when we learn they sometimes do. We’ve given them the stories of our lives. Why not give them our keys?
Natalie Berg, director of retail insights at Planet Retail RNG in London, said this might be too much — even for Amazon. “Consumers are increasingly willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience,” she told me, “but I think this takes things too far.”
It’s possible she’s right. Maybe we’ll rebel at the thought of letting total strangers across our thresholds. Our home is our castle, and all that. But judging by the popularity of Alexa and Amazon Prime, a lot of consumers may just shrug and say, “Why not?” After all, they’ve already got a foot in the door.
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