Remembering the fiasco of getting anything shipped between Thanksgiving and Washington’s Birthday last year, I’ve been in a bit of a race to pick up some books. It’s not that I’m in any danger of running out of things to read, but since I have a habit of picking up a series and then racing through it to the end, there are a few titles it’s going to be better to have on hand for when delivery services go absolutely sideways again this year.
Watching the supply chain struggle to not even keep up over the last year, it really feels inevitable that loading it down with the standard end of the year holiday surge will see the whole delicate machine grind to a near halt, if only temporarily. Products will still be flowing, of course, but there’s no guarantee that was moving through the network will be what you ordered. I fully expect basic delivery of goods to be almost unusable for a good part of the late fall and winter. Sure, I suppose your stuff will arrive eventually, but “timely service” isn’t going to be something to expect.
By this time next month, I’m planning to drastically curtail my use of online shopping and delivery. The sheer aggravation of waiting for weeks or months on things that should arrive in a day or two just isn’t worth it. I’ll draw down the stocks I’ve put up for the winter, or shop regional retail if it’s absolutely unavoidable. Now if I could just find the last book or two I’m looking for (at something less than fully-loaded collector prices), I feel like I could be all set to ride out another winter of discontent.
I’m not under any delusion that the supply chain will be completely untangled in 2022, but by the time the last Christmas card arrives in February or March, maybe last mile delivery will at least be usable for household basics again. I’m certainly preparing myself to see as much or more disruption than we did in in the closing weeks of 2000 and the first months of 2021. It’s one of those cases where I really hope I’ll be proven wrong and over reactionary… but I don’t think I am or will be.
1. Diminishing supply. My to be read shelves are starting to look a bit picked over despite the regular trickle of online orders over the last nine months. Sure, there’s still an easy 400 or so lined up in the fiction section and another 150 in non-fiction, but the gaps that weren’t there when the Great Plague started are starting to be noticeable. I’d usually spend the week after Christmas casting net through used book stores and thrift shops in a geographical area that stretched north to south from Philadelphia to DC and east to west from Dover to Frederick. It’s the second of what are historically my two big, bulk buying weeks I’ve missed this year. I’m not at much risk of running short on reading material, but I do miss the hunt – and finding the occasional rare-ish first edition, or signed copy, or the one long out-of-print volume I need to make the set. Book shops are probably a low threat environment, eminently suited for social distancing, but every trip out increases the chance of being exposed unnecessarily. With vaccines now ramping up to full rate production and being shipped out by the millions, it feels like a stupid time to force old patterns to fit present circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
2. Staying put. As I sit here finalizing this post, it’s Christmas Eve morning. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in 42 years I won’t wake up in the shadow of Savage Mountain. Like a salmon driven by thousands of generations of history to swim back up stream to the gravel beds where they were born, the trip home for Christmas was as inviolable part of my yearly calendar no matter where in the country I found myself living. Staying put this year is absolutely the right decision… even though there’s a deep, primordial part of my brain is screaming that something is wrong.
3. Shipping. I ordered a book from a shop in Indiana on the 7th of December. It shipped out on the 10th. It pinged in various places on the 12th and 13th before coming to rest in York, Pennsylvania in the 19th, where according to the helpful USPS tracking website it hasn’t been seen since. By contrast, the package I currently have in transit from southern Sweden was picked up by UPS on December 22nd and flown through the night across the Atlantic bloody Ocean. It arrived in Philadelphia, and cleared customs on the 23rd, was driven overnight to New Castle, Delaware and now, on the 24th, is loaded on a truck for delivery. I absolutely paid more for the UPS delivery than I did for the package shipped through the postal service, but if that’s the cost of actually getting what you order in a timely manner, it’s a price I’ll happily pay. I fully understand that things ordered in December sometimes take a bit longer than usual to arrive, but come on, man.
1. Shipping. I know it’s the busiest shipping time of the year – and now it’s overlaid by the number of people who have increasingly turned to online shopping during this plague year. The big carriers – UPS, FedEx, USPS – are likely running near capacity and will be doing so for the next few weeks at least. I’m enough of a logistician to know that when you flood the pipeline, the amount of time to get things from Point A to Point B increases. Even in a low-defect environment (and I’m not conceding that delivery services are that even on their good days), an increased number of items means a correspondingly increased number of errors. I’m a reasonably rational human being who understands these things… but that in no way means I’m not getting thoroughly annoyed by the number of packages in the last few weeks that seem to have been lost in transit or simply “disappeared” from tracking apps.
2. Dog life. A certain short haired dog of mine decided earlier this week that he didn’t like going outside when temperatures were hovering at or below freezing. That led to an issue Tuesday night where he’d been “holding it” so long that he’d periodically dribble when he walked. Not cool. As a guy who once sequestered himself to the kitchen for six months to crack the code on housebreaking, I’m fairly certain a fit of willpower and determination will also see me through this phase too… even if that means carrying the fuzzy little bastard out the door over my shoulder like a 70-pound sack of squirming, unhappy potatoes.
3. Xfinity. I like to keep something streaming as background noise while I’m working from my home office. Usually that means one of the big news channels, but could be Futurama or Star Trek reruns when I get tired of hearing whatever stories the major news outlets are pimping on any given day. Increasingly, I’m met with buffering, dropped feeds, basically unwatchable content when signed in to Xfinity’s streaming website. Sure, I could just turn on the TV in the other room and boost the sound a bit, but that’s inconvenient for switching between channels as the mood strikes. Basic diagnostics show all speeds are great and I can’t come up with a reason there should be a problem, but there is one. I’d be considerably less aggrieved if this wasn’t part and parcel of the same Xfinity that wants to slap me with yet another regular charge for busting through their arbitrarily set data cap every month. Look, I don’t mind the cost of the service, but if you’re going to pillage me out of $250+ a month, I’d very much like to get the services for which I’m paying.
1. One Day Shipping. I have no idea why Amazon even pretends to offer items for “one day shipping” any more. Of the last three items I’ve purchased that touted this speedy service, exactly none of them arrived when “expected.” When I’ve been lucky, the items may have shipped by the expected arrival date… although one of those never arrived at all and had to be reshipped, arriving a full week after I ordered it. At one time, Amazon was practically synonymous with “logistics,” but mostly now I think they just make shit up as they go along.
2. Anti-intellectualism. America has a long history of anti-intellectualism. I could give you someone examples, but since we’re currently living through one of them, I’ll save you the trip down our collective memory lane and hope that you’ll just accept that I’m telling you the truth. Maybe the space program in the 60s was an exception, but I suspect that was more because those with the right stuff were billed as test pilots rather than engineers – though in many cases they were both. I know the historical backstory of why Americans have a long tradition of hating the smart people in the room, but I’ll never quite understand why we can’t get the hell over it.
3. Peak savings days. Local electric companies are quick to hand out a few pennies savings for those who are willing to swelter a bit as afternoon temperatures hover in the mid-90s. All that really tells me is that increasingly, the local electric grid hasn’t been built out to meet actual demand for its product. Personally, I’d prefer to pay them a few pennies more during off-peak times so they can build a bit of excess capacity rather than sweating all the way through high summer. A little personal comfort feels like something well worth paying for, but maybe that’s just me.
1. One day shipping. I know there’s a pandemic (despite or apparent collective decision to ignore it). Shipping times have been all jacked up, but “arriving on or before” has been reasonably reliable throughout. I placed an order last Thursday that indicated next day delivery. It was, of course, a no show. By Saturday afternoon the order status changed to “delayed.” Then it was the Sunday and federal holiday Monday. On Tuesday the status changed again to “There may be a problem with your order.” By Wednesday, the status changed yet again to “We think we lost your order” and offering a link to request a replacement. I duly followed the link, requesting the replacement… about two hours before the original item arrived on my doorstep, delivered by a third-party carrier that was never once mentioned in any of the shipping information I received from Amazon. Sometimes I think they are true masters of logistics. Other times it feels like they don’t have any idea what’s actually rolling through their system.
2. Someday, just once, I’d love to know what it’s like to be part of an organization where the left hand has any semblance of a clue what the right hand is up to… or I could just continue to flail helplessly in a bottomless morass of abject fuckery until it’s time to turn out the lights. Either way, I guess.
3. Personal bubble. After a week of continuing to mute the hell out of people on Facebook, I’ve started doing the same on Twitter – Except this time I get to block whole words, phrases, and hashtags instead of (or in addition to) ignoring entire accounts. I’ve grown weary of feeds spewing uninformed content, virtue signaling, and purity tests so I’m opting to continue to curate my personal online bubble. There’s enough absolute shit to deal with day to day without being flooded across my social media platforms too. For what it’s worth, I haven’t needed to do a thing to Instagram and will cheerfully stay there… ummm… for the articles. The left and right hands.
1. “Strategic” Amazon ordering. It used to be simple. I’d drop an order with Amazon and later that day I’d get a notice that the item has shipped. In the days of the Great Plague, shipping delays have revealed a problem I find more problematic than even the delayed ship times. Let’s say I order a 30-pound bag of dog food on Monday, a paperback on Tuesday, and some plastic kitchen implement on Wednesday. Those things use to ship separately. Now, more often than not they end up in the same box. Like the last one I received – with the kitchen utensil mangled, dog food bag ripped open, and the paperback folded, spindled, and mutilated. So now I keep a running list of things I need to order from Amazon and let each one clear all the way through shipping before ordering the next. It shouldn’t need to be this way, but it is.
2. Social media. In this age of plague, social media has revealed a lot more about some of our friends and family than most of us probably wanted to know. I did my level best to overlook some of the more wild-eyed speculations flowing through the tubes of the internet. Eventually, though, I capitulated and started the liberal application of the mute option. Getting the worst offenders from both sides out of my feed has done wonders for my blood pressure, so maybe the initial annoyance was worth it.
3. Historically I’ve had the ability to fall asleep pretty much the moment I close my eyes. I’m not complaining about missing out on the lying awake or tossing and turning that some people complain about. The last week or so, though, has been jam packed with tossing and turning or somehow thrashing around in my sleep. I know this because when my brain stutters awake in the pre-dawn darkness, the comforter is halfway across the room, there’s a blanket piled up where the pillows should be, and my legs are utterly tangled in the top sheet. Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with that, but I don’t feel any less rested than usual, so I guess it’s whatever.
1. Missing appointments. So far during the Great Plague, I’ve deferred my regular medical checkup, a dental cleaning, a crown replacement, and three vet appointments. That’s six things right out of the gate that need rescheduled over the summer – assuming the plague actually gets tamped down. It’s not all down side, of course. Having a full year’s worth of leave to cram into the back half of the year won’t suck. It’s mostly about the number of phone calls I’ll need to make to get everything made up.
2. Research. Reading things on Facebook and then doing a Google don’t make you a researcher. Going down an internet rabbit hole is not research. It just isn’t. Even in the softest of soft sciences, there’s a methodology to research, a way of doing things. Buying whole cloth, the wisdom of egirls selling cleansing tea on Instagram versus the nuanced explanations of actual scientists who have spent a lifetime studying their field makes you look like an idiot. Spewing that mess in public doesn’t make you a researcher. It makes you a clear and present threat to yourself and anyone unfortunate enough not to read your blathering with a critical eye.
3. Shipping. There’s nothing to be done for it, but it feels like we’re back in the olden days of online shopping, or more specifically of shipping those orders. Amazon trained me too well to expect items to tumble onto my porch the day I ordered them or at worst in a day or two. Now that we’re back to items showing up five or seven days later – or weeks later in some cases – it all feels so damned clunky.
1. Squeakers. The level of noise in my house is probably more subdued than most. There aren’t kids screeching or multiple adults knocking around. The television or a webcast is usually running in the background just to provide some ambient sound. Maybe that’s why the sudden onset of every imaginable style of squeaky toy for dogs has left me slightly twitchy. Even with that said, I’m prepared to declare that dog toys with squeakers in them are absolutely tools of the devil, conceived in Hell itself and delivered by Amazon. If they can make whistles that only dogs can hear why can’t they rig toys to squeak in the same range? If feels like a wholly undeserved slice of the large and growing pet toy market.
2. Home Depot. Amazon has me trained, I suppose. I put in an order and two days later it ends up on my porch. Home Depot has a lot to learn from that model. I ordered something last Friday and it’s still sitting at the “order received.” A call to their customer service line gave me the stock answer that items usually ship in between 7 and 10 business days. I did, however, arrive home to find the item sitting on my front porch… even while a day later the tracking still says it’s just an “order received.” Hey, I’m happy to have it so I can get it installed over the weekend, but how the actual fuck is that an acceptable model of fulfillment in the internet age?
3. Lighting. I’ve gotten on board with some aspects of an automated home. I love my Nest thermostat. I love my security system – and it’s various environmental sensors that keep an eye out for smoke, carbon monoxide, and unexpected water in the basement. I’ve toe touched into the broader world of automated lighting – mostly using individual programmable switches and timers for various outlets and fixtures. It’s a system that works well enough given my somewhat fanatical adherence to routine. Still, there are some things I’d like to automate that are a little more involved and others I’d like to have a finer level of remote control over. This has led me down a deep and growing rabbit hole of home automation tools and systems… and into a growing awareness that doing what I want to do is going to be a not inexpensive effort. There’s more than a small part of me that wonders if the old mode of “flip switch, light turns on” isn’t really good enough. Of course then there’s the other, larger part that wants to exert detailed control over my environment that’s almost surely going to win the day. In this case, I suspect lighting is just the catalyst for a much larger and deep rooted annoyance.
I’ve always wanted to like Amazon. A million years ago they were a place where you could find all sorts of reading material that your small local bookshop didn’t carry or that they didn’t have much interest in getting for you. Time passes. Things evolve. Amazon is now all things to all people – literally where you can go to but everything including the kitchen sink, listen to streaming radio, or find a bit of in-house produced “prestige television.”
The more Amazon has grown, the larger their catalog of merchandise has become, the worse the overall experience of dealing with them is. Over the last 12 months I’ve received more damaged items and made more returns to them than I have in my entire time as an Amazon customer up to this point. It’s a pity, because Amazon is just so damned convenient.
I won’t go so far as to say I’m parting company with Amazon – but I can go out of my way to make them a vendor of last resort. Even if that means a bit more inconvenience and expense for me, I’m just petty enough to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve cancelled my subscriptions and know that means spending extra time to find books coming from Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or searched out from individual used book shops. It means either shlepping out to the local Petco for dog and cat food or finding more consistent online sellers. It means getting use to paying for 2-day shipping in some cases.
Sure Amazon’s customer service is always quick with a refund or offering up a replacement, but being johnny on the spot with those things shouldn’t be the norm. If they’re not interested in delivering a product not beat to shit or spewed open inside the carton during shipment, they’re not interested in hanging on to at least this one customer. Sure, losing a couple thousand dollars a year in revenue isn’t going to break Amazon, but it’s the one voice I know capitalism understands when echoed by enough mouths… and all because the world’s greatest retailer can’t be bothered by a bit of proper product packaging.
I have a standing order with Amazon to deliver dog food, cat food, and litter on a monthly basis. It hasn’t been an altogether satisfying relationship thus far. Two out of the last three orders have been what I’ll just call “defective.” Today’s order included a bag of cat food in fine shape, a box of cat litter in fine condition, and a bag of dog food with a blown out corner that emptied half the bag’s contents out into the shipping box.
Look, the dogs loved the fact that I schlepped this 50 pound box through the middle of the house trailing kibble behind me, but it wasn’t the kind of experience I’d have paid for if given the opportunity. I’m a simple guy who just wants things to arrive undamaged. I don’t feel like that’s really an unreasonable position on my part as the consumer.
I dutifully fired up Amazon’s customer service chat and to their credit they immediately offered to ship out another bag of food or give me a refund. The Amazon business model is a real wonder of the modern – as it seems it’s cheaper for them to replace every fourth or fifth thing I buy than it is to spend a few extra cents on proper packaging for their products.
Amazon isn’t the only game in town, but they are generally the most convenient for setting up recurring orders so I’ll keep using them. They’ll keep sending out items in piss poor packaging. I’ll keep sending for replacements. And the whole machine will keep on working. Somehow, though, it feels like there could be a better way.