By Chris Teale (File photo)
The move towards faster on- line shopping delivery expanded to Alexandria and Northern Virginia last week, as Amazon’s Prime Now service began operating across the area.
The online retail giant now offers delivery of tens of thou- sands of products, from groceries and household essentials to office supplies, video games and Amazon-branded devices. Prime membership — either $10.99 a month of $99 yearly — gives customers certain ad- vantages on shipping and access to streaming music and video among other benefits.
With the Prime Now service, members can either have products delivered in two hours or less for free, or in one hour or less for $7.99 per shipment. The new Northern Virginia service stretches from Springfield to Arlington and includes the Port City. It joins similar services in Richmond and Virginia Beach in the commonwealth, as well as elsewhere like New York City, Seattle and Chicago.
“Our customers want the convenience, and always are wanting faster delivery,” said Amazon spokeswoman Amanda Ip. “This is a magical experience, and customers are able to conveniently shop using their mobile app or on the browser at www.primenow.com and it magically appears at their door almost instantly.”
Ip said the service works similarly to Amazon’s regular delivery service, where customers order their purchases and those orders are packaged in vast fulfillment centers. Prime Now uses that same technology but on a smaller scale in hubs, where the products available for one or two-hour delivery are collected by pickers and then shipped out.
The Prime Now hub serving Alexandria and the rest of the Northern Virginia foot- print encapsulated in this latest expansion is located in Springfield, Ip said.
“We’re rapidly expanding and trying to bring this one- and two-hour delivery service to as many Prime members as we can,” Ip said.
This latest innovation by Amazon might give rise to concerns among small businesses and entrepreneurs in Alexandria, as potential customers may choose the more convenient option of having goods delivered in two hours or less rather than visit a store in person.
Already, the rise of online shopping has been blamed in part for several Port City retailers shuttering in recent months. Earlier this year, long-time King Street toy store Why Not? closed its doors after more than 50 years at 200 King St.
In an interview after the closure was announced, owner Kate Schlabach said competing against online retail had become too difficult. Schla- bach said that all too often, she would see potential customers come into her store, take photographs of potential purchases and then leave the store to buy them on the Internet.
“I’m not going to fight on- line anymore,” Schlabach said at the time. “The last 10 years, the business has gone down each year. I think it’s a crying shame. I don’t think people get what they’re doing to independent businesses with all the online ordering.”
Concerns about Amazon and Prime Now’s impact on small business have spread to other jurisdictions and cities where the service is offered. After being launched in Paris in June, the city’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo asked Amazon to guarantee delivery would not add to the city’s pollution problems and that the “diversity” of Paris’ economy would be preserved.
Bill Reagan, executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, said that such additional competition should be seen by retailers as an opportunity to examine their practices and see what needs to change in order to stay relevant.
“All online marketing is a challenge to the brick-and-mortar store,” Reagan said. “It imposes on the store owner to provide something that the shopper wants to come visit the premises. We find that there are lots of things that people still want to come into a store and see and touch and feel, so it behooves that retailer to make their destination a visiting experience that has that value to it.”
Reagan said given competition from online retailers, brick-and-mortar stores should examine their own presence on the Internet, from ensuring their website is up to date to making sure they have a strong presence on social media. He added that having well-informed staff on hand to answer customers’ questions about products is a big help as well.
“I would say carefully assess your product or service for how competitive you are, look for value you can add to the shopping experience, make sure your staff is knowledgeable and when shoppers are in the store they get guidance that they would not be able to get online only,” Reagan said. “Then just look for every way they can enhance the shop- ping experience.”
While Ip did not directly address Prime Now’s possible impact on local small businesses, she said there have been in- stances elsewhere of the service partnering with a local retailer to provide products. She gave the example of the Seattle offering, which partners with local Asian grocery store Uwajimaya to provide goods to customers in the city through Prime Now.
Ip declined to say whether Amazon would explore or form similar arrangements in Northern Virginia in the future.