It's Amazon!
It's Amazon! By Wikimedia Commons

Coordinates: Amazon@Boston

There is only one other customer in the store, who seems to be waiting for an Amazon staff member to appear behind the counter. He turns, we make eye contact, and he looks back at his phone. Neither of us went to an Amazon pick-up location to interact with other people.
By Andrew W. Badinelli

Though the store is only a mile and a half away from Harvard’s campus, I had my friend order me a Lyft Line, which felt reasonable at the time. Phoneless, I worried that it’d be difficult for me to find the store once I was dropped off.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Amazon’s logo swoops across the window of its new package depot in giant letters, advertising the location of the store and reminding passers-by that yes, the digital company can open brick-and-mortar locations, too. Seeing Amazon outside of a phone or computer screen is mildly unsettling, like looking at a slightly off-kilter hanging photo frame that you just can’t level.

Earlier this semester, Amazon opened the fully-staffed pickup location on Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, the first store of its kind in the area. Blandly dubbed “Amazon@Boston,” the store is situated in a modern-looking strip mall with other similarly hyper-capitalist institutions: a ski shop chain location to its left, a Starbucks and a Chipotle to its right. Train tracks run directly in front of the strip mall, creating a barrier between these stores and their neighbors across the street: the Boston University College of Fine Arts and the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. Symbolism? You tell me.

Much has been written about Amazon’s seemingly-contradictory foray into the brick-and-mortar book store business. The online-ish retail giant currently operates 12 locations across the United States, and three more—including its first in Washington, D.C.— are in the works, an online-to-real-world transformation reminiscent of some of the Disney Channel’s worst original movie plotlines. Some of the stores, including the one in Dedham, Mass., even have coffee shops. Welcome back, Borders.

But less has been written about these Amazon Pickup Points, locations that give customers the option to eschew traditional two or one-day home delivery in favor of picking up their packages in person. These locations come in two varieties: Unstaffed Amazon Lockers are located within third-party establishments (think Whole Foods, 7-Eleven, Doubletree Suites), and are relatively common, while Amazon@ locations, owned and fully-staffed by Amazon, are less so.

In addition to traditional pickups, Amazon@ depots also offer package return services and the option to pick up drinks and snacks within minutes of ordering, positioning themselves as stern competitors to local convenience stores. Most Amazon@ stores are on college campuses, where they offer students easy access to everything from required textbooks to potato chips (until 9 p.m., at least.) In other words, a lot like a store.

My trek across the river to the Amazon@Boston location was motivated by a desire to avoid the seemingly interminable delay between Amazon delivering packages and Harvard University Mail Services actually getting them to the Mather building manager’s office. I had ordered a new phone, and hoped to have it in hand before leaving campus for a trip two days later. Off I went.

The store uses minimalism to project modernity in the way that every store like that uses minimalism to project modernity. It is empty save for three kiosks in the center of the room (where you check in), a sleek white wall of lockers (where you get your packages), and a customer service desk off to the left (where you return them). You could host a party in the available floor space (cc: Rakesh). To the right are large movie posters advertising some Amazon Prime original movie, which seems to be motivated more by a desire to fill the emptiness than to actually advertise anything, given that there are two of them and they are spaced incredibly far apart. New Age industrial lights set the ambience as P!nk’s latest hit plays softly in the background.

There is only one other customer in the store, who seems to be waiting for an Amazon staff member to appear behind the counter. He turns, we make eye contact, and he looks back at his phone. Neither of us went to an Amazon pick-up location to interact with other people.

I approach the kiosk, which prompts me to enter the code I received in my confirmation email. I do so, and one of the lockers on the wall springs open, lights shining to illuminate a small package inside. It’s a gimmick, but it works: I’m excited. The small screen on the front of the locker directs me to take my package and close the door. I do this, too, and then look around for a staff member to see if I need to do anything else. Maybe they’ll say “You’re all set!” or something. But they are nowhere to be seen.

So I leave, asking myself where they were and how my package had gotten into that locker in the first place. I wonder if I should feel odd about having such an automated, impersonal in-store experience.

I hop into another Lyft Line. Then, I gush to my driver and fellow passenger about how the locker door had swung open all by itself.

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TechnologyIntrospection