In the Prologue chapter of Arriving Today, the author makes an unusual concession: they wrote a long book, and sometimes it can get into technical nitty-gritty that strays a bit far afield from the logistical arc premised by the subtitle, From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. So it’s okay for the reader to skip ahead and get to the good parts, to continue the hypothetical journey of an electronics gadget from factory to consumer.
And they’re right. The book touches on everything from shipping containers and how shipping has evolved with increased demand; to commercial seaports and the systems set up to manage larger container ships; to how the trucking industry works with particular highlights on the trucker themselves; to modern-day fulfillment centers and warehouses; to how “last mile” deliveries happen which eventually will land a package on someone’s front porch. I appreciate all the context provided, which serves to give a sense of how we’ve arrived at our current web of logistics by juxtapositioning historical precedent and technological advancement. The fact that the author did their own investigative work to personally experience each part of the supply chain—from boats to trucks to giant automated warehouse floors—helps ground the story in people and experiences.
And, well, a lot of these experiences turn out to be pretty crappy. Initially, there’s a bright spot: the book first describes the specialized work taken up by modern dock workers, and how they’re well-compensated for the risk and skill of maneuvering ever-bigger container ships into seaports to unload cargo. The other steps of the journey, though, are handled by a combination of robotics and blue-collar labor. The author goes into how these lines of work, around long-haul trucking and online store fulfillment and consumer deliveries, have degraded in job quality over time—lower pay, more hours, and fewer benefits1. Though it’s not too surprising that a book premised on exposing the behind-the-scenes goings-on of retail logistics would focus on the negative impacts this trend has had on people, it’s still pretty stark to see how mechanical and repetitive the humans have become, as cogs in this giant retail machine.
Once the book gets into the fulfillment and distribution part of the journey, it takes a hard turn to look at Amazon with a critical eye. The focus is telegraphed early on and somewhat expected; after all, Amazon is the dominant e-commerce retailer in the US and a global juggernaut, and the company rose to this dominance in large part due to how much it has invested in its own logistics for over 2 decades. Other Amazon-focused books like Amazon Unbound and The Everything Store go more into its business model and its founder-CEO and the ebbs and flows of its product and business lines; here, Arriving Today dives into the physical fulfillment centers, the robots and conveyor belts and associates that move all the goods, and the algorithms underpinning all the movement.
It’s a bit distracting to concentrate so much on a single company. Whereas the shipping and trucking sections go into how those industries have evolved over time and what that has done to the people working in those fields, the focus on Amazon and how it runs its distribution centers give the impression of Amazon being the sole bad guy when it comes to how retail goods are warehoused and sorted. To be sure, Amazon has pursued this aggressively and gets plenty of negative headlines for how much it’s pushed the envelope, but the same setup has been adapted to pretty much all e-commerce retailers—which now includes all the physical store retailers maturing their online businesses as well. That is, while Amazon has played a major part in what retail fulfillment has become, this is now the norm across the industry and not something that is only seen at Amazon warehouses.
Against the author’s advice, I did end up reading through all of Arriving Today. The book does cover a pretty broad swath of logistics, but the timing was a bit unfortunate, in my opinion; it would have been even more interesting to go through which parts of the supply chain broke down and get insight not only in how complex all of it is, but where the complexity becomes a hinderance and the lack of resiliency a real weakness. In the summer of 2022, we’re still living with those consequences.
Or none at all, in the subcontractor/gig economy employment model.↩