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Amazon Is a Logistical Disaster

The failure to honor an embargo on Margaret Atwood's much-anticipated book reflects the company's growing chaos.

Kevin Hagen/Getty

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is undoubtedly the most anticipated book of the year. In order to have copies on hand for the book’s September 10 on-sale date, booksellers were given a lengthy nondisclosure agreement to sign. Not only could they not sell the book before it officially went on sale, they couldn’t read a single word in it beforehand. Critics, meanwhile, were given watermarked review copies. If anyone broke the embargo—perhaps the strictest since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released over a decade ago—they would be held personally liable. In an age when everything people are interested in, from albums to television shows, can be expected to leak, the book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, had taken extraordinary steps to keep the book’s contents under wraps.

No one, it seems, told Amazon. Over a week before the book’s publication, the mega-retailer sent out a reported 800 copies of The Testaments to customers who had preordered it. Amazon shrugged it off, blaming a “technical error” and releasing a statement that should be read while imagining a corporate spokesperson barely suppressing a laugh: “We value our relationship with authors, agents, and publishers, and regret the difficulties this has caused them and our fellow booksellers.” Penguin Random House followed Amazon’s lead, releasing an anodyne statement that didn’t even name the retailer—despite being (by far) the largest publisher in the business, PRH is dwarfed by Amazon and is loathe to start a flame war with their most important account. Other booksellers, meanwhile, were apoplectic, correctly noting that they would have faced enormous consequences if they had put the book on sale early. Of course, 800 copies are a drop in the bucket to Amazon and PRH—but not to independent booksellers. Some see a conspiracy at work. What better way than by leaking the most anticipated book in years is there to tell customers that Amazon—and not a small business—is the place to go if you want things quickly?

Though Amazon is not above such stunts, it no longer needs to risk negative press to cement its brand identity. Instead, the reality is almost certainly more mundane. This wasn’t a “technical error” or a vast conspiracy. It simply reflects Amazon’s spectacular growth and its ever increasing market power; as the retailer has become more dominant and even less beholden to suppliers, incidental errors have increased accordingly. As it races toward one-day shipping—and, it seems, adding a UPS-ish logistics company to its lengthy list of identities (retailer, tech company, film studio, etc.)—the company is unleashing chaos everywhere, both on its website and on the city streets in which it operates. At the same time, Amazon now has a serious counterfeit problem and its next-day delivery program is literally killing people. Though famed for its attention to logistics, as the company increasingly dominates retail, it’s choking the infrastructure and supply chains it relies on.

Amazon has, over the course of its entire history, been utterly unscrupulous in pursuing growth, cheating competitors and suppliers, and flouting numerous regulations and laws in the process. But it has grown exponentially via this formula, hitting a $1 trillion market capitalization this summer. Chaos is baked into Amazon’s rate of growth. To some extent, it drives it, with its CEO Jeff Bezos constantly pushing the company into new territory, often before it’s prepared. As Brad Stone wrote in The Everything Store,

Size bred chaos. All companies hit the critical moment, when their internal structures, like a teenager’s old shoes, suddenly don’t fit anymore. But Amazon went through a severe form of this rite of passage. The larger and more ambitious it got, the more complicated it became structurally and the harder it was to keep everyone coordinated and moving quickly. Bezos wanted to execute several strategies simultaneously, but the company’s various interdependent divisions were wasting too much time coordinating with one another. In the distribution centers, chaos wasn’t an ethereal thing but tangible, reflected in frequent system outages that could shut down facilities for hours and in omnipresent piles of products that sat on the floor, ignored by workers.

Stone was writing about the year 2002, when the company was emerging from the dot-com bust as a retail juggernaut. But it is, to a large extent, still true today. Thanks to the work of executive Jeff Wilke and others, Amazon conquered many of its early logistics issues on the route to guaranteed two-day shipping. Others, though, have cropped up with nearly every expansion, from the race to one-day shipping to the acquisition of Whole Foods.

Recent investigations from BuzzFeed and The New York Times show that Amazon’s drivers have killed a number of pedestrians while racing to make deliveries. While Amazon directs them where to go and sets routes and deadlines, it leaves drivers and contractors liable when accidents happen, and the company refuses to take responsibility. The taxing conditions its drivers face are reminiscent of those in its warehouses, which have been the source of negative attention for years. In the warehouses and distribution centers, as with the drivers, every movement is monitored. Basic necessities, like bathroom breaks, are strictly limited. Despite rising pressure, Amazon has done little to improve these conditions, continuing to push workers, most of whom are not Amazon employees but hired by contractors, to extremes in a race to fulfill an increasing torrent of orders. City streets are now clogged with Amazon delivery vehicles, with New York City sidewalks regularly turned into ad hoc satellite warehouses, stacked with boxes.

Its web store is increasingly unwieldy and unusable. As BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopolous wrote last year, “Have you ever tried searching Amazon for an everyday product that comes in a ton of options, like, say, diapers? It’s a nightmare: all the different quantity counts, the different sellers. Diapers are the kind of thing people love to buy from Amazon, but it’s like diving into a war zone.” Scams are proliferating at an alarming rate. Investigations from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times found that Amazon is teeming with knockoffs, counterfeits, and unsafe and illegal items. You can buy a bootleg copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four that completely changes the text’s meaning.

Which brings us back to The Testaments. There’s a simple explanation for what happened. Amazon received books from Penguin Random House and immediately sent them out—it is, according to sources in the publishing industry, what they do with all preorders, regardless of on-sale date or, in this case, embargoes. Amazon’s raison d’etre is speed at all costs—products must zip through the supply chain at the fastest possible rate. The company simply isn’t capable of operating any other way.

In the case of Atwood’s novel, the costs are relatively slight. While neither the supplier nor the retailer were counting on a week of bad press greeting the release of the year’s hottest book, the news cycle will move on. But the larger problem is getting worse. Amazon has been on a grow-at-all-costs path for years. This year it finally seems to have run into a problem of its own making: the company’s refusal to invest in an infrastructure commensurate with its own ambitions. From overworked warehouse staff to exhausted drivers behind the wheels of unsafe vans to, yes, the casual inattention to book embargoes, it’s clear that Amazon is putting corporate strategy first, even when the guarantees it makes to suppliers, contractors, and its own employees mean less than ever.

That, of course, is baked into the company’s DNA. For all the talk of its next generation capabilities, it has largely grown the old-fashioned way. It offers customers the lowest prices around. Vendors are lured to its marketplace with the promise of sharing in its bounty and the fear of being shut out from a platform that has a stranglehold on online commerce. Cities and states have no choice but to acquiesce to its demands—and to its heavy use of public infrastructure. Amazon keeps getting bigger and messier and its screw-ups are becoming bigger and messier in the process. There’s no sign that it plans to change course, but the collisions aren’t going to get less visible, damaging, or damning.