Opinion » The Rant

Free Shipping Isn’t Really Free



If you've logged onto your Amazon Prime account the last few weeks to order your holiday gifts, you may have browsed through all of Amazon's finely curated online deals. From gift guides to "last-minute" deals, the online super-retailer can be overwhelming, sending you through a sea of recommended products and leaving you to explore the site for hours on end. We've all probably started with a simple phone case search and ended up reading reviews for heated, battery-powered jackets that are waterproof and windproof. Did I recently learn there's a market for that? Yes, I did. But in Memphis, where we can experience all seasons in a week (or a day), I doubt it's a significant one.

Expediency is one of many allures of online shopping. We can browse a site and make quick decisions on what we want to purchase without ever having to get up from our seat. Amazon even has the option for "1-Click Ordering" which I can see as very dangerous grounds for impulse buyers. We see it, we want it, and as we add it to our cart, we can expect it to arrive in two business days.


Generally, you won't find folks reviewing catalogs of products but rather shopping online through store websites and mobile apps. To be fair, I've never been much to review a catalog of anything, except Aldi's four-page spread highlighting next week's selection of deals, so I am reflecting on observations of young folks adding to their Urban Outfitters shopping cart during classes and lectures and middle-age folks shopping for matching polos for their partners on Vineyard Vine's mobile site. For those who find themselves last-minute shopping for holiday or birthday gifts, I get it. "FREE two-day shipping" is a saving grace. But as we turn the pages to 2019, one small thing we must reconsider is what this hot button actually means.

"Free" shipping isn't ever free. By that, I don't mean the actual cost of having a Prime account that affords such a luxury of expedited shipping. I'm talking about the human cost. While technology is surely affecting much of the presence of human labor through, for example, self-checkout and other automated-type kiosks, we still find that the on-the-ground movement of products from one point to the next requires people to physically do that work. E-commerce companies depend on this type of labor in warehouses to move and distribute their products. As a distribution center, Memphis' employers and employees especially know this to be true.

We now expect that our purchases arrive at our doorstep in the same week. We have gotten so used to the ease of one-click ordering and two-day shipping that we forget the work that is required for it get there. For folks working in warehouses, this expectation of expediency has a real physical and mental toll. While we can see that e-commerce companies are becoming successful businesses, the profits of this success do not reach the people who make it all possible.

On the business side, companies speak about the increasing labor costs as dialogue spreads on what should be minimum wage, but the reality is that the cost of labor has always been there. It has just been significantly undervalued because human labor is undervalued. When we talk about cost of labor, rarely do we bring up or question the cost of these massive bonuses that executives and CEOs receive.

Arguments against living wages that keep up with inflation suggest that increasing wages of workers will hurt the business, but these company executives know that increasing wages won't necessarily affect the cost for the consumer but will instead cut into their personal bonus checks. The real cost to the consumer happens when wages stay below the living wage measured for a specific city and state. We as consumers and taxpayers pay for what companies such as Amazon refuse to because it cuts into their profit margins, but in particular, the individual executive profits. When workers aren't compensated fairly and their wages aren't adjusted like those executive salaries, then their dollar is stretched thin. They have to carefully choose where to put their money, whether it be food, housing, health, or savings. Putting more into one bucket may mean needing to find available public services and programs to help out with the other. I say "available" because at the state of where many public programs are now ... well, they could definitely be better. We still do not allocate adequate funds in the city's budget to address homelessness, and for folks who may have access to forms of housing, the conditions of the housing are not necessarily livable (i.e. slumlords and section eight housing in Memphis).

The one-click options for fast shipping distract us from the many steps that happen between placing our order and receiving it. The influx of warehouse job positions, similarly, are appealing, but we must question how companies are not only compensating their workers but also treating them. At the end of the business day, and into the late shifts for many warehouse workers, what happens in the warehouse and in other sectors of the labor market, the violation of humane working conditions, wage theft, lack of concern for worker health and safety, affects us all.

Aylen Mercado is a brown, queer, Latinx chingona and Memphian pursuing an Urban Studies and Latin American and Latinx Studies degree at Rhodes College.


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