This story is part of a Modern Retail editorial series looking at how the retail experience will change in the post-pandemic economy. To see all the stories, go here.
In a delivery-focused Whole Foods store, everything is designed to optimize speed.
When customers place an order through Amazon’s Prime Now program — its two-hour grocery delivery service that the company is now rolling into its main shopping app — the order is routed to a network of Amazon workers, called Amazon Shoppers, to pick the orders. They are tasked with buying all of the requested items, offering replacements if the store is out of an item that the customer requested and setting up the groceries either for pickup or for delivery. A separate contract workforce of delivery drivers — usually enrolled in the Amazon Flex program — then drive those orders to a customer’s house.
It’s a high-stress job, according to one worker spoke to Modern Retail about what it’s like working as an Amazon shopper. The shopper, a retired nurse living in the Midwest, has been with the company for two years, and asked to remain anonymous in order to share her experience.
When the shopper first started at Amazon, she said there were about 25 shoppers working at her assigned Whole Foods store. About 3-4 people worked a given shift, and the queue of customer orders waiting to be filled usually hovered close to zero — mainly because grocery delivery, at that point, was not yet a major priority for Amazon.
Since then, as Amazon has built out its grocery delivery options and increasingly expanded Prime Now, her store has hired more aggressively, and orders have poured in at a rapid clip. These days, she said, 30 to 40 shoppers are working a shift at a given time, and it’s normal for her to show up to work with 100 to 160 customer orders waiting in the queue. (Amazon did not comment to Modern Retail on the record.)
Why did you first take the job?
I was excited because I had retired from nursing. I like to shop, you know. That’s me — going around and shopping for others.
When I started, we didn’t measure metrics. We used to help each other. It was expected that we pick one item a minute. Then [Amazon] started to have competitions where the highest one got a TV.
How the role has changed in two years
For 2-3 months now, it is impossible to get shifts. Sunday is the main day that employees want to avoid. The day is crazy. I have come in to work on a Sunday — once there were 170 outstanding orders. I do not know why Prime allows that many time slots available for people to order groceries. I know many orders have been ordered by customer[s] a day or two before. All I know is mayhem.
Starting Christmas last year, they started advertising online that you can get your groceries delivered. We got crazy busy.
I have seen 30 shoppers on a weekend day. But when there are less shoppers working that day, it is almost frantic. It seems the number of orders never seem to decrease, only increase. My app on my smartphone vibrates with a new order, exactly the moment I click “order completed” after I staged the last bag in the chiller.
In November, there were 90 new hires. When I walk into Whole Foods for a shift, I see them. New hires [often] overpopulate the produce department. Prime shoppers compete with one another for the last Icelandic Peach Cloudberry yogurt.
I am a gig worker. I am competing for leftover shifts. 300-plus others are too. All because they couldn’t cover all shifts. Not all new employees work out. Some quit because there are no shifts.
When an item is out of stock
If they’re out of stock, you have to find employee, and he has to verify it’s out of stock, and he has a QR code to scan to show it’s out of stock.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were so many items that weren’t available at other grocery stores. If it’s out of stock, you have to replace it. If you don’t replace it, you’ll lose your job. [During the pandemic], when someone ordered toilet paper, I offered them a replacement of wax paper. They can accept it or deny it. They have 2.5 minutes to reply to the replacement. If they don’t reply in time, they get it sent to them.
The power of the UPH score
[Note: When shoppers prepare an order, they have to scan each item individually into an app on their phones. That is done not just to measure the completeness of a given order, but also for Amazon to track each shopper’s metrics. One of the most important numbers for Amazon shoppers is their Units Per Hour (UPH) score. Every time a shopper grabs, scans and packs an item for pickup, Amazon logs their per-item speeds, then compares it against all of the other shoppers in the store.
Shoppers can reach different levels — including getting access to increased hours and early-access to shifts depending on — depending on how high their UPH score is.]
[At my store] it’s expected that we’ll pick one item every 44 seconds, and that includes packing it and staging it.
When you finish, from the time you begin to the time you close the order, they compute your UPH. I know at the end of each order what my UPH was for that. Then we have a 30-day average.
I’ll have a UPH as high as 109 for one order, but then I’ll get slowed down in another and I’ll have picked 44 UPH. There are a lot of reasons why you end up slowing down. In the meat department, you have to wait for butcher, and if there’s people before you, you have to wait. The clock is ticking on my UPH for that.
When they first started cracking down about UPHs last summer, people got emails saying their UPH was really low and they had to do something about it. There’s no doubt in my mind, if it was below [the store average] for a long period of time, then I would probably lose my job.
[Note: “Staging” refers to placing goods in a paper grocery bag, then preparing it for delivery by adding labels and a sticker with a QR code on it.]
[Previously,] there were staging tables to put bags on and rearrange items in bags for better packing, [so] items like eggs [are] placed safely. Make sure canned good bags weren’t too heavy. With a 98-item order, the table [is] necessary.
But now, they took tables away completely — [except for] two tables that are only for orders over 50 items. Research revealed that orders get sent out faster if people stage in their carts. That is really difficult sometimes. Especially when there is a 10-item order of 10 half gallons of milk or eight watermelons. Not enough room in the cart.
The last time I worked the tables, all two of them were empty. My friend started to put her items on table to pack. She was told that she couldn’t use them at all if item amount was under 40. She would get written up.
We have to be available for assignments on the smartphone all the time. You’re not supposed to turn down orders. Legally I have to take a break, so I have to turn down an order though, but then you have metrics [that Amazon tracks] of how many orders you’ve accepted.
Over the last two years, I’ve kind of made myself crazy with [my speed] on and off. Amazon is time, and time is money. They’re a good company. They’re better than Walmart. They’re better than Target. Are they better to employees than the others? But it’s speed [that counts]. If you can’t keep up, within a couple months, I’m sure [my manager] would talk to me