When you order something online, getting that thing from the warehouse into your hot little hands is hard. Internet commerce is designed to obscure that difficulty—packages are supposed to alight on your welcome mat as though dropped there by the delivery fairy—but challenges persist, and they are only getting worse. There are just too many doorsteps, and too many things that need to alight on them. At the peak of demand, a single holiday season in the United States involves billions of deliveries, all ferried by hand to purchasers within days of dispatch.
In the shipping business, this end portion of a product’s journey from manufacturer to consumer is what’s known as “last mile.” It is an enormous problem without any immediate solution. Retailers and logistics firms boast of investments in automation and artificial intelligence and delivery robots, but right now nothing can meaningfully replace a guy driving a van to your address and walking your box to your front door. To account for this, large internet retailers, and especially Amazon, have spent years devising creative ways to bolster their delivery armies: signing high-volume deals with USPS and UPS, contracting with local logistics services to use their fleets, paying gig workers per package to make deliveries in their own car. Now Amazon is set to take the next step in enlisting every human possible to bring you your stuff; your online-shopping impulse buy might be delivered by your local florist or dry cleaner.