The long read: The great trick of online retail has been to get us to shop more and think less about how our purchases reach our homes
A decade ago, the British department-store chain John Lewis built itself a long warehouse, painted in gradations of sky blue. The shed, as it is called in the industry, cost 100m and covered 650,000 sq ft. Windsor Castle could easily fit inside it. John Lewis named the shed Magna Park 1, after the site where it stands: a logistics campus of warehouses, roads, shipping containers and truck bays east of Milton Keynes. Magna Park 1 was intended to supply the companys stores around southern England, but almost as soon as it was finished, John Lewis realised that it wasnt enough. The pace of e-commerce was flying, and Magna Park 1 opened in the midst of a spell in which, between 2006 and 2016, the share of John Lewis deliveries going direct to customers rose 12-fold.
So John Lewis built Magna Park 2, measuring 675,000 sq ft. After that, the company realised it needed a new shed for Waitrose, its supermarket chain, where home deliveries were skyrocketing, too. It became a bit of a standing joke, said Philip Stanway, a regional director at Chetwoods, the architecture firm that designed and built all these facilities. They used to come to meetings with their forecasts, and theyd say: Screw this. This is the new forecast, Stanway said, making a scribbling motion in the manner of a John Lewis executive hastily updating the numbers. We couldnt build the buildings quick enough for them.
The Waitrose shed ended up spanning close to 1m sq ft. And then, even as Magna Park 2 was being constructed, John Lewis decided to commission Magna Park 3 to fulfill more home deliveries. Magna Park 3 was slightly smaller than the others, Stanway said just 638,000 sq ft. But thats only because that was the size of the plot. That was all the land was left.
John Lewiss appetite for shed space is, at its heart, the story of the explosion of home delivery a story in which we have all been willing participants, since it is our clicking and swiping that has powered the boom. The e-commerce industry lives and dies by metrics, a few of which give us some grasp over this phenomenon. The sprawl of sheds like Magna Parks 1 to 3 are a particularly vivid measure, because they host the final moment of relative stasis for millions of products that are then sprayed out to homes in every direction. Amazons biggest fulfilment centre in the UK, in Tilbury, Essex, occupies 2m sq ft. (In comparison, Amazons first shed, leased in 1997, was 93,000 sq ft.) The volume of daily deliveries to homes has soared from fewer than 360,000 a day in New York City in 2009 to more than 1.5m today. In China, Meituans scooter drivers, in their banana-yellow helmets and jackets, delivered 30m food orders during a single weekend in July. There are numbers for distressing waste: the packaging of home-delivered products now accounts for 30% of the solid rubbish the US generates annually, and the cardboard alone costs 1bn trees. And there are numbers for frenzied growth: the $3.8tn (2.95tn) in global online sales in 2017 will near $6tn by 2024.
These statistics encompass a universe of products. You can summon groceries, alcohol and medicines to your home: chips and vodka on New Years Eve, say, and then aspirin on New Years Day. You can sign up for a Moss of the Month Club; that isnt code for weed, although you can get that delivered, too, in San Francisco or Denver. From the Northampton Reptile Centre, you can order a 20-pack of locusts to feed your tarantula. But most home deliveries consist of the familiar brown-cardboard parcels from retailers such as Amazon; in the US, Amazon is responsible for nearly half of all the 165bn packages delivered each year.
The great trick of online retail has been to get us to do more shopping while thinking less about it thinking less, in particular, about how our purchases reach our homes.This divorce of a product from its voyage to us is perhaps the thing that Amazon has sold us most successfully. Jeff Bezos, Amazons founder, never wanted his customers to worry about shipping about how much it cost, or about how long it would take and he relentlessly shredded delivery times to make shipping incidental to the purchasing experience.
Amazons emphasis on speed compelled other retailers to hurry, too, and encouraged us to believe that if something cannot be had quickly, it is barely worth having at all. It is as if we have forgotten that a product is an object moving through space, fighting gravity, air resistance and other forces of nature. Companies, though, are only too aware of it. While we choose and buy our purchases with mere inch-wide movements of our thumbs, they are busy rearranging the physical world so that our deliveries pelt towards us in ever-quicker time.
The frictionless appearance of a box on the doorstep is such a seductive notion. We have come to rely on it in such a brief period that we have not been able to grapple fully with the scale or the meaning of home delivery. For thousands of years, human progress was indexed to the ease and speed of our mobility: our capacity to walk on two legs, and then to ride on animals, sail on boats, chug across the land and fly through the air, all to procure for ourselves the food and materials we wanted. In barely two decades, that model has been turned inside out. Progress today consists of having our food and materials wing their way to each of us individually; it is indexed to our immobility.
The deliveries of e-commerce are radically different from those we knew earlier: milk, or newspapers, or pizza, brought home by businesses who did one thing and one thing only. Internet shopping invites you to gaze out upon the entire bazaar all at once and to indulge the merest whim. Perhaps online retails closest kinship is with the thick Sears catalogue sent out across the US early in the 20th century, listing more than 100,000 products: pianos, books, barbershop chairs. You could buy an entire house and have the parts shipped over in two railroad cars. Shipping was not free.
But the catalogues aim was to continually expand choice. E-commerces additional aim, and now its primary one, is to continually compress time. As far back as 1999, Bezos was captivated by the prospect of immediate gratification, and Amazon invested $60m in a company called Kozmo.com, which promised to deliver videos, games, DVDs, music, mags, books, food, basics & more to any New York City address in an hour or less. The company collapsed in 2001, but Bezos continued to muse on other models. He once suggested that, by paying college students on every Manhattan block to stockpile products in their apartments and to shuttle them up and down on bicycles, Amazon could edge towards near-instant delivery.
In 2005, Amazon created Prime: a club for shoppers paying a fixed fee every year, so that they got free two-day shipping on everything they bought. Prime now has more than 100 million members, and its rapid satisfaction acts like a drug. A market analysis firm, Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, found that 93% of Prime members keep their subscription after a year, and 98% after two years. Not for patient people, runs a Prime slogan, and it is right: one out of every three Prime members have chucked items out of their carts after learning that they could not arrive in two days. This summer, Amazon halved Prime shipping time down to a day; in October, Prime subscribers in the US became eligible for free two-hour grocery deliveries. When it was in development, Primes code name was Futurama, as if it was forecasting our experience of shipping-less shipping.