E-commerce mega-retailer Amazon will commemorate Prime Day this week, and for the first time, Tulsa’s workforce will play a significant role.
About 3,000 full- and part-timers are employed at Amazon’s local fulfillment center, which opened this summer at 4040 N. 125th East Ave. Prime Day, a global sale that takes place Tuesday and Wednesday, introduces Amazon Prime members to deals that include free delivery in two days or fewer.
“They have ramped up rather quickly,” Al Ondreka, Amazon’s regional director of operations, said of workers at the Tulsa facility. “They just launched in early August, and they are already half-filled with items to ship out. They are going to be a huge part of Prime Day this year.”
Prime Day started in July 2015 as a way to celebrate Amazon’s 20th birthday, and the 2019 version was the largest shopping event in company history, with sales surpassing the previous Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. A year ago over those two days, Prime members worldwide purchased more than 175 million items, from devices to groceries.
Amazon continues to hire in Tulsa, and the personnel total at the city’s facility is expected to move past 4,000 by year’s end, Ondreka said.
“We really loved the area and really loved the people in Tulsa,” he said. “They are really hardworking.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant, months-long restrictions on in-person shopping have enhanced Amazon’s profile in particular and e-commerce in general.
Consistent with marketplace facilitator legislation and allowing the state to capture revenue that previously had been lost, Amazon, eBay and other internet retailers began collecting taxes from online customers in Oklahoma in July 2018.
Partly because of that, collections on use tax, taxes paid by consumers on items purchased out of state and for use in Oklahoma, increased in Tulsa by 8.9% in 2019 to $43.2 million, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
In Oklahoma, use tax income increases have been even more pronounced this summer. In July, state use tax collections were up 19.4% over last year; in August, the rise was 21.8%, according to the Tax Commission.
By contrast, before the marketplace measure was put in place, the federal Government Accountability Office estimated that Oklahoma lost between $157 million and $228 million in unpaid use tax revenues from e-commerce in 2017.
“A lot more customers are buying on e-commerce versus going to going to traditional stores, just given the nature of where we are right now in the country,” Ondreka said. “We see our buildings are busier. We see our associates sending more and more packages out on a daily basis.
“I tend to think that we have to be prepared for more folks wanting to buy more things from home. We’ve certainly seen it over the past couple of months, but it seems like that may be a bit of the direction we might be going.”
Locally, e-commerce increasingly is finding its way into stores and restaurants.
Loops, a Tulsa yarn store, closed for a couple of months following the March outbreak of the coronavirus, but it has rebounded since. By early September, Loops had already passed its revenue mark for all of 2019, founder and CEO Shelley Brander said.
“It’s kind of amazing really,” she said. “Our e-commerce is way up on (company website) loopslove.com, and it has been since the beginning.”
Brander connects with virtual customers via outlets such as Zoom and Knit Stars, an online global knitting festival that boasts more than 10,000 members.
“It’s about inclusion, bringing in all backgrounds, making it accessible for people who have different abilities,” Brander said. “It’s been a really positive thing. It’s an initiative to knit the world together.”
A recent survey by The Connected Commerce Council (3C), a national nonprofit, nearly a third of business owners said that without digital tools, they would have had to close all or a part of their business during the COVID-19 crisis. Roughly the same percentage said such technology has been essential during that time.
“Honestly, when COVID started happening, I said if it weren’t for all of kinds of these things, we would not have been able to do business that first month,” Brander said. “People love to touch yarn and connect in person. But we just keep working really hard to try to make it as close as possible.”
Mike Bausch, who owns a handful of Andolini’s Pizzeria restaurants in the Tulsa metro, has watched COVID-19 slice in half the in-store portion of his business.
But in the interim, he has used a number of digital devices to promote his brand, including e-cards for Door Dash delivery and QR codes, which can be scanned by smartphones to produce no-touch menus.
“QR codes were perceived as antiquated technology,” Bausch said. “They came to fruition in 2013, 2014, and people were kind of writing them off.
“QR codes are everywhere now. You don’t even need an app to access them. When all of this happened, I had over 10 different businesses e-mail or call me and ask, ‘who did you get to do that for you?’”
Strategic pivots notwithstanding, Bausch said valuable lessons always can be learned by facing adversity.
“There’s nothing that happens that I can’t look at and say, ‘Good. You punched me in the face,’” he said. “Now, I know how to take that punch.” That’s the mindset that I believe that is necessary to own and operate a business successfully.”
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