Amazon Misses a Shopping Opportunity


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The most helpful shopping ideas right now are coming from blah big box stores like Walmart and Lowe’s. It’s surprising, yeah. And Amazon, the company that’s determined to reinvent everything, is kinda boring.

There are times when you’d prefer to sit on your couch, pull out a laptop and wait for a pair of curtains to arrive in a cardboard box. But it can also be great to make your purchases online, and then pop by your local Walmart and know that someone is waiting to put those curtains in your car trunk — along with some milk and peanut butter, too.

There’s recently been a surge of people who are picking up their online orders in-person at Walmart, Target, Home Depot and other stores big and small. I’ve been impressed by how old-school companies, from Best Buy to my local cheese shop, have quickly adapted to offering low-contact pickups like this. Some of this activity is a temporary coronavirus-related spike, but I bet some of these habits will stick.

That’s because we want to shop any way we like — all online, all in-store or a mix with the best of both. And I can’t for the life of me understand how Amazon is missing this.

For a quarter century, the retailer has mostly played in the all-online portion of shopping, and that’s been to its advantage. But even Amazon has shown that physical stores matter.

Three years ago, Amazon agreed to pay $14 billion to buy the Whole Foods supermarket chain. This was the moment when Amazon acknowledged the importance of physical stores, and I couldn’t wait to see how the company reimagined in-person shopping experiences that had not changed much in my lifetime. There would be robots or something.

Yes, Whole Foods stores are offering home deliveries now. But it’s other retailers that are rethinking how their physical stores can work hand-in-hand with online shopping.

It’s harder for Amazon to have a curbside drive-up option. Whole Foods stores tend to be smaller than Walmarts or Targets, with smaller (or no) parking lots. But come on. Where are the fresh ideas?

Could Whole Foods have prepackaged kits of standard essentials like milk, eggs, bread and pasta for shoppers who want to grab and go? What about having people reserve a shopping slot time instead of lining up to get into stores? How about personalized suggestions for meals with directions on where to pick up the ingredients? (And I wouldn’t mind if someone washed and chopped my veggies while I shopped, too.)

Amazon’s digital experiments for grocery shopping outside Whole Foods are interesting, but they lack oomph. Three years after Amazon opened two drive-in grocery pickup outposts in the Seattle area, there are still only two. Amazon doesn’t do small things. If these pickup spots are still experiments, it’s a good bet Amazon doesn’t think they’re working.

My local cheese shop has changed what it does on the fly. The razor sharp, obsessive minds at Amazon haven’t shown much imagination or conviction yet.

Brian X. Chen, a personal technology columnist for The Times, has these suggestions for ordering delivery or takeout from your favorite local restaurants, while letting them keep most of the money.

With so many people stuck at home, the use of food delivery apps has surged. That’s not necessarily a good thing for your neighborhood pizzeria.

This has led a number of people to ask me: Are there kinder ways to order food?

For starters, calling the restaurant directly to request pickup or delivery is the simplest way to keep all of the money in the restaurant’s pocket. (Make sure to get the phone number from the restaurant’s website, not Yelp, because some apps have found sneaky ways to continue charging commissions even for phone orders.)

And then there’s Tock. After the coronavirus hit, the restaurateur Nick Kokonas reconfigured his reservation app to help restaurants handle takeout orders. The team understands the food business, so it can help restaurants handle orders in a sane way: You reserve a time for pick up.

This way, the restaurants don’t get slammed all at once during peak hours, like what can happen with typical delivery apps. Tock charges a flat 3 percent commission, much less than the fees of bigger apps like Uber Eats.

I’ve used Tock several times to order takeout from my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and I’m impressed. As soon as I have arrived for my appointed order time, the food is ready, and there has never been a line.

So stay well and stay healthy. But while you’re doing that, try to help your local businesses do the same.

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