Amazon launches locker program in Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun
Amazon lockers could reduce package theft in Baltimore

Baltimore-area Amazon customers, some frustrated by package theft, now have another option for delivery than their front steps and porches.

The online retail giant, which opened a massive distribution center in East Baltimore last year, has brought its Amazon Locker program to the region, setting up nine self-service package pickup points.

Most of the nine Baltimore-area Amazon Lockers are inside Shoppers Food and Pharmacy stores.

Amazon emails a customer a unique digital code that they can enter into a touch screen on the high-tech cabinets, which opens a compartment in the locker with their package.

"I first thought, 'Who is going to use these?'" said Gino Polsinelli, store director of the Shoppers on Fort Avenue in Riverside, where Amazon set up the locker two weeks ago. "But they've really taken off. The first day they were used, there was a line of people coming to pick up their packages."

The lockers are a smart move that serves two goals for the retail giant — reducing shipping expenses and costly package theft, said Ravi Srinivasan, assistant professor of operations management at Loyola University Maryland.

Delivering to a single location is cheaper for Amazon, which manages some of its own deliveries.

"It's the logical next step for Amazon," Srinivasan said. "Customers are already used to these type of things. Think about Redbox and online grocery stores, retailers who let you buy online and have products shipped to a place where you can pick them up."

Retailers from Best Buy to Target offer in-store pickup for items ordered online.

The lockers also could be a response to package theft, which some in Baltimore say is a growing problem.

"When a package is stolen, Amazon has to eat the cost and figure out a way to deliver the product to the customer," Srinivasan said. "The lockers will reduce their overall costs."

About 23 million Americans have had packages stolen from their doorsteps, according to a 2015 report from InsuranceQuotes.com.

Amazon emphasized convenience when asked about the decision to roll out the new lockers, which first launched in New York, Seattle and London in 2011, but now can be found in a growing number of cities. It partners with grocery and convenience stores to host the lockers, paying the retailers a fee.

Aaron Toso, an Amazon spokesman, declined to answer questions about package theft and whether it played a role in the locker program.

"Customers wanted more options for delivery. We are adding lockers in cities all over the country, including Baltimore, and we'll be looking for ways to expand the service," Toso wrote. "Customers like the added convenience of a locker option."

But for online consumers like Ben Foote, 35, the lockers are more of a necessary inconvenience.

"Some people are happy because they're going to start using the lockers," said Foote, a father of two. "But that's just another step you have to go through to get your package."

Foote, who lives in Canton, said he's had many package stolen from his doorstep.

"I've had a cellphone stolen, boxes of diapers and just random stuff," Foote said. "I had a textbook stolen from when I was in graduate school. I was laughing about that. What are you going to do with a software engineering textbook?"

Foote said he isn't the only victim in his neighborhood. Thieves often descend on his part of the city, where rowhouses and their front steps are close to the street offering little cover for a delivered package, Foote said.

Aside from anecdotal evidence and what people post on Nextdoor and Reddit, it's difficult to quantify how big a problem package theft is in Baltimore.

The city police don't track package theft separately from larceny.

An estimated 40 percent of Amazon items are shipped through the U.S. Postal Service, almost 150 million packages, according to an analysis done by Bernstein Research in 2015.

More than 2,300 people were arrested nationwide for mail theft in 2015, according to Frank Schissler of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the USPS. A little more than 2,000 of those resulted in convictions.

Those cases included both parcel and envelope thefts, and a single case could encompass several individual claims of mail theft and involve multiple individuals.

A breakdown of Baltimore-area numbers was not immediately available, but Schissler said that the number of mail theft cases in Baltimore was not higher than in other major cities.

Some city residents who've lost packages to so-called "porch pirates" hope to deter or catch thieves with video surveillance.

Aaron Allen, 34, who lives in Waverly, installed two porch security cameras after his Amazon package was stolen in March.

"They sent out a replacement box with all of the items I ordered," Allen said. "I just had them send it to a friend's house who's home during the day, but I don't want to do that long-term. I hope that by setting up these cameras, I can dissuade people from doing it again."

Allen has since videoed one person picking up a package that was left on his porch. While that person did not end up stealing the package, Allen uploaded the clip to YouTube, printed a screenshot from the video and taped it to his front door.

"So now the first things you see when you come up to our house are signs warning about the camera and the picture of the guy," Allen said.

This story has been updated to reflect incorrect information about the number of cases initiated by postal inspectors.

jcapriel@baltsun.com

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