Boom in delivery drivers brings convenience, challenges

Front desk manager Emmy Marshall scans packages into the system at the Grandview condominiums in Atlanta’s Buckhead community. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Front desk manager Emmy Marshall scans packages into the system at the Grandview condominiums in Atlanta’s Buckhead community. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Toby Ray, a Marietta grandmother and former banker, doesn’t drive a boxy truck or wear a brown uniform. But she has a lot in common with people who hoist boxes for UPS or other companies that have long dominated the U.S. delivery business.

Most days, she heads to an Amazon center in Smyrna along with dozens or even hundreds of other contract deliverers who drive their personal cars for the online giant. She slips on a lanyard with a little card that says “Amazon Flex” and stuffs her diminutive, bright green Mazda2 with 42 to 65 parcels — everything from padded envelopes to lawnmowers waiting for assembly.

Then she and the other drivers fan out across metro Atlanta, their trunks and hatchbacks jammed by consumers’ growing desire to get everything they want fast and hand-delivered.

“The big thing to me here in Atlanta is that you are turning that many people loose at the same time in the traffic,” Ray said.

Contract drivers are meant to keep costs down and spread risk, helping more retailers, restaurant owners and others offer free or inexpensive delivery. But the business model — and the broader boom in home deliveries — is causing hiccups beyond increased traffic. At many high-rise condo buildings, for example, boxes pile up behind front counters, forcing properties to add storage rooms, package scanners and software to text or email residents when parcels arrive.

“Within the past two years the boom has become overwhelming,” said Paige Perkins, the high-rise division manager in Atlanta for Community Management Associates. “Our people were drowning behind the counter. Everybody is trying to struggle with the best way to handle it, and we are basically staying one step ahead of it.”

Gated suburban neighborhoods sometimes face backups when unfamiliar drivers — many in unmarked vehicles and without much in the way of uniforms — try to make deliveries. Elsewhere, residents are getting used to increased comings and goings of strangers.

Attorney Angie Smith said that more than half of what her family buys is delivered to their house in Marietta. Most items, she assumes, are handled by official drivers for UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service. Then there was the woman who drove up the driveway to leave groceries on the back porch.

“It is odd having a stranger that is unaffiliated with any company coming to your door,” Smith said.

Amazon, which is on pace to capture half of all e-commerce sales, fed the delivery bonanza with free delivery offer for Amazon Prime members. It's not tackling the delivery challenge alone. It uses companies like UPS, smaller contractors and its own operations, including Amazon Flex, which relies on individual on-demand contractors.

Amazon recently announced it will back hundreds of small delivery businesses to serve it, which experts say could help sidestep risks and costs.

More than half of the U.S. domestic package volume for Sandy Springs-based UPS now goes to consumers, rather than businesses, a flip that happened only in the last year or so. Parcels destined for consumers soared more than 9 percent in 2017, while business-to-business deliveries dipped.

Beyond just UPS, U.S. deliveries hit 11.9 billion parcels last year, an average of 37 packages per person annually, according to Pitney Bowes, a tech company focused on shipping and related activities. U.S. volume surged 8 percent from the year before and 49 percent since 2012.

And then there’s the expanding deliveries by grocers and restaurants, with the rise of options like Uber Eats (which delivers for more than 1,000 metro Atlanta restaurants), DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and others.

Traditional delivery giants have found so-called "last-mile" home deliveries offer lower profit margins. They often require driving deep into a subdivision to drop off a single box. And there's the risk of having to make multiple trips if deliveries require someone to be home when packages arrive. Fewer signature requirements and centralized drop-off locations or package lockers help.

To meet growing demand, companies including UPS, Walmart and Amazon have been researching drone deliveryRolling sidewalk-cruising robots could start making deliveries in Dallas soon, following testing in cities including Austin, San Francisco and Washington, the Dallas Morning News reported. 

Marc Gorlin has launched a more human-powered option. His tech company, Buckhead-based Roadie, lets drivers sign up to deliver items headed where they happen to be going. The company has more than 80,000 drivers signed up nationwide.

"We deliver everything from cats to keys to couches to cupcakes," Gorlin said. Roadie couriers also reconnect delayed baggage with travelers for Delta Air Lines and deliver some online purchases for The Home Depot.

“People want everything freer and faster,” Gorlin said. “To handle that need, you need a lot more capacity for delivery. Tapping into cars already on the road is a faster, much more efficient and obviously greener delivery model because drivers are already heading that way.”

Deliveries made by passenger vehicles can be less intrusive than having package trucks rumble through neighborhoods. But City College of New York professor Alison Conway, who has written about delivery impacts in urban environments, said having multiple deliverers serving the same neighborhoods is less efficient for local roads than when consumers consolidate purchases from multiple stores on a single trip.

The trend toward more deliveries looks like it’s growing.

Ray, the Amazon Flex driver, said she’s gotten plenty of work, a flexible schedule and pay that averages about $18 an hour, even after subtracting her fuel costs. She’s a consumer, too, and spends more with businesses online that offer delivery.

“It’s expected now,” she said.

She recalled being amazed a few years ago when a local grocer launched a program where consumers could order and pick up groceries, bagged and ready to go at the store. The grocer recently expanded to offer delivery.

“Now,” she said, “you just snap your finger and they are there.”