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Whole Foods Is Now Charging for Grocery Delivery — But Free Delivery Was Always a False Promise

Free grocery delivery has served to cloak the human cost of labor, leading consumers to expect a free service that was never really free

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Three brown paper Amazon Prime Whole Foods delivery bags sit on a front stoop, with the corner of a white front door visible in background. Marekuliasz/Shutterstock

If going to the grocery store and having groceries delivered costs pretty much the same amount of money, why would anyone go to the grocery store ever again? What was always desirable service became even more in demand during the pandemic, when so many people were trying to avoid packed aisles and endless lines. While the pandemic is very much not over, the days of free grocery delivery are — at least from Whole Foods: On October 25, Amazon will institute a $9.95 delivery surcharge on Whole Foods Market deliveries nationwide.

With the increased demand for grocery delivery during the pandemic, Whole Foods deliveries more than tripled between 2019 and 2020, according to the Washington Post. While the company had hoped this spike would boost profits, it drove costs instead. Add to that the unpredictable yo-yoing prices and sporadic availability of products due to faltering supply chains, and delivery has become quite expensive for Amazon and Whole Foods.

In the past, Amazon was willing to eat costs in one of its departments if it thought it could make up the losses in another. But “growth of delivery drives operating costs that we do not want to shift to product prices,” Whole Foods spokeswoman Stephanie Ferragut wrote in an emailed statement to the Post. In an email to MarketWatch, an Amazon spokesperson wrote that “Whole Foods Market is not increasing prices on products. We have consistent pricing on everyday priced products in store and online.”

The thing is, grocery delivery never should have been free in the first place. Or at least, not if the outcome is consumers thinking they have a right to groceries dropped on their doorstep, while workers during the pandemic face incredible pressure to meet demand, and risk their lives in return for paltry health protections and low wages. Labor costs money, and services like free delivery might be appealing, but they gloss over the working conditions for the shoppers and drivers who make it possible to have a bag of eggs and produce dropped off within hours (or as some now promise, less) of placing an order.

While this new delivery fee might be an important reminder that “free” delivery has always had a human cost, the actual humans doing the delivering aren’t receiving an increase in wages. Jeff Bezos, whose net worth rose by more than $70 billion in 2020 alone as a result of the increased reliance on delivery, will still be making the same income. Not great! But, crucially, free delivery has long been a cudgel Amazon has wielded in its attempts to become a monopoly in all areas where it sells goods — In the title of one of his newsletters exploring monopolies, the writer Matt Stoller calls Amazon Prime “an economy-distorting lie.” He describes the way Amazon has distorted and controlled prices across various industries, writing that “The goal was to get people used to buying from Amazon, knowing they wouldn’t have to worry about shipping charges. Once Amazon had control of a large chunk of online retail customers, it could then begin dictating terms of sellers who needed to reach them… Prime is just a huge public relations stunt, a giant lie by Amazon to mask the high prices it forces across the economy. If people figure this out, it’s a devastating blow to Amazon’s credibility”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with delivery. It is convenient, and helps make life sustainable for those who can’t get to the store for any number of reasons. But the idea of free delivery has only served to cloak the human cost of such a service, and during the pandemic, has put the associated risks of grocery shopping on a low-paid workers plate.

Though the fee will not change the day to day life of workers — Amazon does not have the best interests of its workers at heart, and this latest price increase, without addressing worker conditions, only affirms that — maybe it will push consumers to internalize the fact that when it comes to other people’s labor, nothing is (or should be) free. With that in mind, we can make better choices about where we spend our money. Maybe, with free grocery delivery a thing of the past, that starts with cancelling our Prime subscriptions.

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