Journalists, particularly those at Tier-1 media properties, are the best non-fiction storytellers on the planet. They toil in a Darwinian world in which clicks correlate to economic health. If they don’t produce content that triggers clicks, they’re going to eventually hear words to the effect, “You’re not a fit here.”
With this in mind, it’s useful to break down journalism with a strong storytelling bent for lessons that can be applied to business communications; hence, my dissection of a New York Times story on Amazon’s delivery service in the Himalayas.
The journalist makes good use of my favorite storytelling technique, the anecdote.
Delivering Amazon Packages to the Top of the World
Text by Vindu Goel
July 2, 2018
LEH, India — Perched high in the Himalayas, near India’s border with China, the tiny town of Leh sometimes seems as if it has been left behind by modern technology. Internet and cellphone service is spotty, the two roads to the outside world are snowed in every winter, and Buddhist monasteries compete with military outposts for prime mountaintop locations.
Commentary: Contrast is the stage setter. You don’t expect Amazon to care about a place in the middle of nowhere like Leh. As communicators, the more we can bring the unexpected to the table, the stronger our story becomes for the reader or, if we’re pitching a story, for journalists.
But early each morning, the convenience of the digital age arrives, by way of a plane carrying 15 to 20 bags of packages from Amazon. At an elevation of 11,562 feet, Leh is the highest spot in the world where the company offers speedy delivery.
Commentary: Here comes the incongruent storytelling, the idea that e-commerce happens in Leh through Amazon. Note that the details matter. The plane isn’t just carrying “bags of packages.” The plane is carrying “15 to 20 bags of packages.” The fact that Leh has the highest altitude of any Amazon delivery point provides a bonus touch.
When the plane arrives from New Delhi, it is met by employees from Amazon’s local delivery partner, Incredible Himalaya, who then shuttle the packages by van to a modest warehouse nearby. Eshay Rangdol, 26, the nephew of the owner, helps oversee the sorting of the packages and delivers many of them himself.
The couriers must follow exacting standards set by Amazon, from wearing closed-toe shoes and being neatly groomed to displaying their ID cards and carrying a fully charged cellphone.
Commentary: Again, the details matter, and they’re details that you don’t expect — that Amazon requires the courier in this remote part of the planet to still follow all of the Amazon requirements. You almost get the feel that the couriers must stand in front of Mr. Bezos virtually and pass inspection. Also, note they call out the name of the guy, Eashay Rangdol, sorting the packages. The journalist is teasing out the humanity of the story.
BTW, Incredible Himalaya proves that naming companies is overrated.
Amazon began offering doorstep delivery in this region last fall, as part of an effort to better serve the remotest corners of India. Sales volume in Leh is up twelvefold since Incredible Himalaya took over deliveries from the postal service, which was much slower and required customers to pick up packages at the post office.
Commentary: Quantifying the success; i.e., 12X improvement in sales + previously customers had to get their stuff at the post office. Numbers serve as critical proof points.
Local delivery partners like Incredible Himalaya are vital to the American company’s global strategy, especially as it tries to diversify beyond traditional package delivery companies like United Parcel Service or FedEx. Last week, Amazon announced a program to entice more small businesses to join the company’s delivery network in the United States.
Commentary: Ties the relationship with Incredible Himalayas to Amazon’s global strategy. Creates some friction/drama with big couriers UPS and FedEx.
Leh is geographically and culturally close to Tibet, a region controlled by China. Buddhist monasteries tend to the religious needs of the town’s 30,000 residents, while military units guard the still-disputed border with China.
Mr. Rangdol and the other couriers get to the shoppers via motorcycle and scooter. When the snow is heavy in the winter, they will occasionally use a car. But two wheels are generally better than four to navigate Leh’s narrow, bumpy roads and dodge the ubiquitous cows.
Commentary: Geez, the couriers have to dodge cows on the way to deliver packages. Again, an incongruent moment in the world of e-commerce.
Skalzing Dolma, a frequent Amazon customer, was Mr. Rangdol’s first stop on a recent day, receiving a delivery of bedsheets and eye shadow.
Ms. Dolma has bought everything from clothing to kitchen appliances on Amazon and estimated that she has spent a total of 100,000 rupees, or around $1,500, on the site. With few choices in Leh stores, cosmetics and clothing are popular categories for Amazon here.
Commentary: We once again cross paths with details shaping he story. Skalzing doesn’t just buy on Amazon. She just bought bedsheets and eye shadow. Such detail brings realness to the story.
Orders typically arrive in five to seven days, slower than the two-day delivery that Amazon’s big-city customers receive but quicker than the monthlong journey they often took with the post office.
Commentary: Quantifying success, delivery happens in five to seven days compared to the typical 30-day journey.
With a baby due in July, Rigzin Dolker, who used to work at call centers in Delhi, finds Amazon to be far more convenient than trekking into town. She has been buying baby clothes and makeup from the company.
Fortunately for Amazon, the local soldiers and monks are big customers. Thinley Odzer, a monk at the tiny Kartse Monastery, received a backpack. In the past, he has bought mobile phone cases and parts for his motorbike.
Commentary: The theme of details surfaces yet again. We learn the monk’s name, his location at Kartse Monastery and that he bought a backpack.
Leh hardly seems like the kind of market that would appeal to a global e-commerce giant like Amazon. Internet service — essential to placing an order — cuts out frequently during the best of times and goes down entirely for weeks or months during winter, when the trunk line to Srinagar, the state capital, is damaged under the snow.
Commentary: Not everything goes perfectly for Amazon. Life isn’t perfect. Stories aren’t perfect. It’s not just that the internet goes down. We learn specifics — that the trunk line to Srinagar periodically breaks due to the weight of snow.
But Amazon takes the long view. E-commerce is spreading globally, and India is a prime battleground, where customers are just beginning to shop online and loyalties are not yet established. Walmart recently announced plans to buy a controlling interest in India’s leading e-commerce company, Flipkart, allowing it to challenge Amazon directly for the wallets of Indian consumers.
Commentary: Ties back to the Amazon corporate story and its battle with formidable competitors like Walmart and Flipkart.
Amazon may never make money shipping products by air to customers in Leh. But the idea is that profits from dense urban areas like Mumbai and Delhi will subsidize service to more remote ones.
“We want to make delivery convenient to where our customers are,” said Tim Collins, Amazon’s vice president of global logistics. “Over time, the economics will work themselves out.”
Commentary: Hits the corporate narrative one last time.
The strategy rankles Leh merchants like Nawang Shispa, owner of Tsering Electronics, who said his sales of phones and accessories had dropped 10 percent since Amazon started quicker delivery to the community.
Still, his salesmen compensate. One of them sold a new Oppo smartphone to Jigmat Amo, 16, by slightly undercutting Amazon’s price. Ms. Amo said she was a bit leery of Amazon after buying a handbag and a pair of ballet shoes from the site that did not look like the pictures.
Liyaqat Ali, owner of the Singay General Store in the main town square, figured that there is room enough for both him and Amazon. He does a brisk business selling groceries and sundries like diapers, which people typically need right away.
“Amazon is new to Leh, and the internet is not so good,” he said. “And if you order something like diapers, you have to wait a week to 10 days.”
Liyaqat Ali, who owns a general store in Leh, said there was still a demand for groceries and other items that customers didn’t want to wait for.
Commentary: Brings out a bit of friction (drama) by sharing anecdotes about two local merchants who aren’t on the Amazon bandwagon. No doubt Amazon wasn’t thrilled with this passage, but it doesn’t take away from the overall positive impression left with the reader. Too often companies get caught up in the one negative when it’s the overall narrative that matters.
Mr. Rangdol said that in addition to delivering packages and managing the delivery warehouse, he taught people how to order on Amazon.
“Before I joined Amazon, my friends called me Eshay,” he said. “Now they call me Amazon.”
Commentary: Hey, the journalist made the journey from Mumbai to Leh, so he’s darn sure going to give it a happy ending. Of course, it’s a fun anecdote and puts a bow on the package.
Companies often fixate on the big picture which might not be all that interesting.
The fact that Amazon offers delivery service in the Himalayas by itself isn’t going to earn a feature in The New York Times. It’s the details and anecdotes that bring the story to life.