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Prime Day returns as Amazon boosts profile in the Region

Miracle Stewart, right, an employee of Amazon PrimeNow, prepares bags to fill with orders from customers making purchases, at a distribution hub in New York, in 2017.

Retail in the Region continues to evolve over time.

People used to flock to ritzy department stores in downtown Hammond and Gary, massive stores like Goldblatt's, E.C. Minas, Lytton's and H. Gordon and Sons.

Then as the nation suburbanized and the population spread out, shoppers flocked to malls like the Southlake Mall in Hobart, the Village Shopping Center in Gary, Woodmar Mall in Hammond, River Oaks Center in Calumet City and the Century Mall in Merrillville.

Many of those malls are now shuttered or limping along, and many big-box stores have been closing in recent years. While people still shop at brick-and-mortar stores, including nice new outdoor lifestyle centers, e-commerce has risen in popularity in recent years.

Amazon, which controls an estimated 40% of the e-commerce market in the United States, has become more and more visible in the Region, opening a distribution warehouse in Gary last year. Amazon Prime delivery vans are now a regular sighting on Northwest Indiana roads. Amazon Lockers have sprung up in the Whole Foods in Schererville and River Oaks. The Seattle-based online commerce giant also has in-store stores in local Kohl's where people can purchase or return items.

The retailer's made-up shopping holiday, Prime Day, returns Monday and Tuesday, with some deals going online as soon as Sunday. People will scour the Amazon website in search of deals on tablets, electronics, smart home devices, and sundry other goods on what's been dubbed "Christmas in July."

Local business owners, including Kaydee Frostborne of the Librarium Cafe in Hobart and Jim Roumbos of Miles Books in Highland, said Prime Day itself does not appear to have much impact on their business.

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But overall online sales are been taking up an increasingly larger chunk of the overall retail business.

Ecommerce sales in the United States grew 14.4% to $162.18 billion in the fourth quarter of last year, online commerce intelligence service Internet Retailer estimates. That accounted for 16.2% of total retail sales of $998.4 billion in the fourth quarter, compared with 14.8% a year earlier.

Amazon claims more than 100 million people pay $119 a year to be Amazon Prime members, which entitles them to faster shipping, streaming television and other amenities.

While people might be thrilled to save $50 on an Echo device on Prime Day, it can take a toll on workers. 

"The stress can be particularly hard on any day, and especially during Prime Day events. But, this year, the toll on Amazon’s workers will be considerably worse. Prime Day has been expanded to two-days and earlier this year Amazon announced a new policy of one-day shipping that effectively doubles the pace of its workers," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "Amazon fulfillment workers were already facing speeds of 200 to 300 orders per hour in 12-hour shifts before the new policy. They were struggling to maintain that pace, even before the one-day shipping policy was announced."

He encouraged the company to hire more workers to keep up with demand instead of pushing its current warehouse employees to the limit.

"Testing hundreds of thousands of workers physical limits as though they were trained triathletes is the wrong approach," Appelbaum said. "Amazon needs to understand that human beings are not robots."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.