The advent of e-commerce

In a Q&A, sociologist Steve Viscelli talks transport, last-mile delivery, and the labor behind getting holiday packages to America’s front doors.

Man walking through a city carrying packages
During the holiday season, about three times as many parcels are shipped per day. For delivery workers, it’s a grueling marathon that goes on through mid-January. (Image: Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash)

“Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff.” In Wally Piper’s 1930 children’s classic, the eponymous and ever-optimistic “Little Engine That Could” brought dolls, toys, and treats for the children on the other side of the mountain. Over a century later, toy delivery is more often done by a blue Amazon Prime van than a little blue train, but the effort is often just as arduous, especially during the holiday season when deliveries triple.

Steve Viscelli is associate professor of practice in the Sociology Department in the College of Arts and Sciences, faculty fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.” Penn Today talked with Viscelli about transport, last-mile delivery, and the labor behind getting holiday packages to America’s front doors.

How do the holidays impact the people working in delivery services?

The first thing that people need to know about the work is just how physically demanding it is. I have interviewed postal carriers who walk in excess of 20 miles a day and they do that sometimes with a satchel, which can, by the rules, weigh up to 35 pounds. And that’s just the mail. Then we have packages on top of that. I think people don’t appreciate what it’s like to walk 15 miles and carry maybe 250 packages. That’s if you’re a postal worker. If you’re a UPS driver or an Amazon driver, you could be delivering up to 400 packages in a day across 200 or so stops. 

I’ve interviewed people in their 40s who have had both hips replaced from doing these jobs. It’s rare that I interview anybody who has a long-term career in delivery who doesn’t have some kind of shoulder, hip, or knee problem. Incredible amounts of physical effort are required to do these jobs and at this time of year, it is absolutely exhausting.

In the holiday season, 10 to 12 hours is typical for a workday. For a lot of workers, that’s six days a week. At the Postal Service, it can be it seven days a week. And that lasts until mid-January, because there’s a huge surge of purchasing using Christmas gift cards, so they’ll have a couple of weeks of additional deliveries and then a lot of returns.

What are the steps that a package goes through to get to from a factory to a front door?

That’s the end point of a long trip. For whatever it is that we’re getting, there will be a number of modes of transportation and stops along the way, from a manufacturing plant to a shipping facility and then onto a ship, right across an ocean to a port, and then onto a truck, or often times a train, and then another truck, and then probably a warehouse or two along the way, to a store or to your door. And there are workers at every part of that process: labeling things, packing the boxes, running cranes, driving vehicles, etc. What we’re getting into now is really the peak periods for the warehousing and distribution centers and what is called last-mile delivery. 

Over the last 10 years, the big story in freight movement has been the increase in last mile delivery of packages to consumers. This has been an enormous shift. There was a time when you went to the store on Sunday after church to get a few things. That system of going to centralized locations to buy things evolved into the big box supply chain, epitomized by Walmart. Still, that system was moving relatively small numbers of items in fairly large quantities to relatively few locations. 

Now, e-commerce aspires to move millions of different items to wherever you are, essentially at the click of a mouse. We’re getting now to the point of two-hour delivery in places and one- and two-day delivery is something that customers think is normal.

What has the growth in e-commerce meant for delivery services?

That has been an incredible transition. The speed at which things have to move and the fact that they’re moving in small amounts adds tremendous complexity to the work that folks are doing. And customers love it, right? They’re ordering more and more stuff online. Amazon is the big player here, representing more than 50% of online sales in recent years. 

We’re seeing a huge amount of boxes. What used to be a 40-hour week is now a 50-, 60-, 70-hour week. COVID had a big impact on freight movement, particularly packages, and a tremendous increase in online shopping and last-mile delivery, some of which has abated, but much of which stayed.

What’s also happened in last-mile delivery is de-skilling. Before, you had high-performance model approaches to labor and last-mile delivery, where you had your postal carrier or your UPS driver in well-paid, unionized jobs with benefits. The same person delivered to that same route or area, day after day and they got really, really good at it. They knew when the buses got out. They knew where they could double park safely. They knew whether the businesses want deliveries in the front of the building or the back of the building. They knew the routine and they were really fast. 

Global positioning systems and what we call algorithmic management is now allowing firms like Amazon to use workers with a computer to deliver a package, scan it, check GPS, and then tell the driver where to go next. This allows them to take just about anybody and, in a couple of days, put them in a delivery van. They don’t do as good of a job. But there’s all this pressure that e-commerce has put on the work, essentially to make it cheaper. 

If you think about it, what you used to get delivered to your house was something that you probably would sign for: electronics, important documents, the newest pair of shoes, something you really cared about. What Amazon is getting us to buy today is toilet paper, laundry detergent—stuff that’s cheap. You’re not going to pay what people used to pay for UPS or FedEx or even U.S. Postal Service (USPS) priority mail to get it there safely and securely. Amazon’s more in the business of flinging stuff out into space quickly and cheaply with significant amounts of loss. The labor costs the way it used to be done are simply too high. This has resulted in the creation of these relatively low-wage, very tough jobs, in outsourced businesses that Amazon is creating, with some downward pressure on good-quality jobs, most importantly at the USPS and UPS. 

All of these issues are intersecting with significant changes in the labor market driven by Amazon’s growth, where over the last five years they’ve added a service the size of UPS or the postal service. It’s hard to overstate how important that is for the labor market and how that impacts what’s happening on some of our streets.


A view of the inside of a delivery truck, with stacks of boxes and letters.
A view of the inside of a delivery truck. “They have to play this crazy Tetris game,” says Steve Viscelli. Boxes delivered last are arranged on the bottom. (Image: Steve Viscelli)

What is next for the industry?

The big question in delivery, and transportation more generally, is unionization. It always has been, going all the way back to the railroad strikes in the 1870s. The strongest union in American history was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. And that’s because transportation workers are the connective tissue of capitalism; they link sites of production to each other and to sites of consumption. If you own big businesses, transportation is the last place you want striking workers, because they can stop the flow of goods in public spaces.

For me, job quality is a question of policy. There’s a lot of potential to create good jobs, but these are physically demanding jobs and so workers need to have protection, and they need to a voice in order to ensure that they have benefits and good wages and they don’t get burned out or hurt. What is the policy that is going to shape the labor market?

I’m optimistic that we can, that we can have a more efficient, safer transportation of goods in the U.S., if we if we make the right policy choices. I’ve helped with the Biden-Harris Trucking Action Plan, which lays out key pillars of what that should look like in terms of public subsidies for training, recruitment of drivers, training of drivers, safety rules, wage and hour rules, worker classification, and other areas to ensure that those jobs offer fair compensation. And I’m hopeful.

I would like to say that an individual consumer could support good working conditions in transportation. I suppose you could try. However, I don’t think it’s up to the individual consumers. I really do think this is about policy.

How does Amazon play into all this?

I end up at labor forums where people will make this argument: ‘How could you possibly order from Amazon?’ You could try to stop Amazon with your individual purchasing power, but it is the tide of history, what we’re witnessing, and I don’t see a mass movement emerging to stop it. 

I hope I don’t do it on a daily basis, but I order stuff from Amazon constantly. I hate stores. I don’t want to waste my time shopping, physically taking myself to look at an inferior selection of items at potentially a higher cost. And the impact of big box stores—go out and look at all the strip malls. The impacts of that system on the landscape alone were terrible. 

In the long term, e-commerce is good for the planet, per package, per item. If people are just going to buy to the end of their ability and it increases consumption overall, then we’re going to have a big problem, but if we were buying the same amount of stuff, we can do it much cheaper with an efficient delivery system than we can with a big box supply chain. If we make those delivery jobs good jobs as well, we have the potential for a win-win.