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What exactly is the point of Amazon’s Treasure Truck?

Six months of longing for a pop-up offering carnival-themed deals to gesture at its reason for existing.

The Amazon Treasure Truck at an event.
The Amazon Treasure Truck at an event on May 5, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

My life is a series of promotions and discounts that I have failed to take advantage of.

Dunkin’ Donuts coupons expiring in my wallet. Hundreds of thousands of Walgreens points for which I have never learned the free-stuff conversion rate. There’s free Hulu if you have Spotify Premium, but how does the Hulu website even work? I have heard that my generation loves a deal, and I know many intelligent women my age who write out sensible and detailed plans around Sephora’s annual sale, lest they waste money or time.

These are all the details you need about my life up to November 2018, which was when I signed up to receive daily text notifications about Amazon’s Treasure Truck — a truck that disperses heavily discounted goods three or four times each week in various cities, including mine.

My intention, of course, was to be notified of an alluring deal and go find the truck wherever it may be and procure an item that would make my life really good. Also, as a journalist who covers technology and consumerism, I was just curious what could possibly be the point of this. What did one of the largest companies on earth need with a glorified discount ice cream truck? It couldn’t be brand recognition; it couldn’t be reaching people where they live.

The website for the Amazon Treasure Truck is not helpful on this second point. “We delight customers with surprise same-day pickup of one amazing item at a great price,” the headline of its job page announces. That nearly makes sense. But an explanation of the Treasure Truck experience follows, and it is absolute chaos:

“Awesome,” you yell as you see the notification and quickly open the Amazon Shopping app on your phone. The GoPro Hero4 Black (or, you know, substitute your own dream product here — it’s your imagination) is on Treasure Truck for 65% off today. You complete the checkout just in time. Congratulations, my friend, you’re one of the lucky customers to score this killer deal! The stop you choose is by your gym, so you’ll swing by and pick up the GoPro while you’re sipping on your protein shake (or beer — it’s 9:30 in the morning, but we’re not judging).

“Beer — it’s 9:30 in the morning, but we’re not judging.” Please calm down!

The explanation continues, getting only more alarming.

The Treasure Truck experience is like nothing else at Amazon. We hand-curate desirable, limited-quantity, and often discounted products from paddleboards to prime porterhouse steaks and oysters to Skullcandy headphones. Our customers learn about the offer through an SMS notification. The Trucks, loaded with product, roll out to meet the lucky customers at their chosen stop on the same day they order.

When customers show up at the Truck, their senses are treated to unique sights and sounds exclusive to the offer and Treasure Truck. We’re talking about full video walls, dope beats, and try-it-out stations where they can test the product first-hand or sample something delicious from the grill.

Dope beats!

Unfortunately, receiving frequent SMS notifications about the Treasure Truck was not helpful in understanding the Treasure Truck, either, because there was no discernible pattern among the items available. Each morning, around 10 am, I would spend several minutes trying to figure out what the discounted item even was (many of them had truly baffling names, like “Cutetitos Mystery Plush” and “Unstable Unicorns”) and what kind of person would be excited enough about it to abandon their workplace or other daytime obligations to hunt down a truck that could be anywhere in the five boroughs to retrieve it. This mental exercise undoubtedly kept me young, but it did not make my job any easier.

I mean, here is a small selection of the deals I missed out on:

  • Once Upon a Leprechaun Costume (41% off)
  • 12 real diamonds in 18k White Gold, 0.96 ct tw for $1,300 ($1,500 off)
  • Tempur-Pedic TEMPUR Symphony Pillow (41% off)
  • Bidet sprayer ($19.99, 33% off)

Let me repeat this to you: Bidet sprayer. A $20 bidet sprayer marked down from — if my seventh-grade math is holding up here — $30. You download the Amazon app, buy it, then go outside and pick it up at a carnival-themed truck. Bidet sprayer.

Please keep in mind that I am not above doing something for no reason, but also that I am not one of the largest and most ruthlessly organized corporations the world has ever seen. What cause would Amazon — a company widely believed to treat its workers like interchangeable bundles of bone and muscle tissue undeserving of bathroom breaks — have for doing something so inefficient and unnecessary?

The Treasure Truck debuted in the summer of 2015 in Seattle, and was, one day near Christmas 2016, driven around by Seattle Seahawks player Marshawn Lynch. It expanded across the US throughout 2017; there are now 35 Treasure Trucks in 25 major cities, although according to some of Twitter and Reddit complaints I have seen, the trucks have all but abandoned Baltimore.

Amazon has said very little publicly about the purpose of the trucks or how much it plans to invest in them (and did not respond to requests for comment for this story), but in a letter to shareholders written last April, Jeff Bezos did take a moment to mention his fleet.

“Our bubble-blowing, music-pumping trucks fulfilled hundreds of thousands of orders, from porterhouse steaks to the latest Nintendo releases,” he wrote. “Throughout the year, Treasure Truck also partnered with local communities to lift spirits and help those in need.”

Digiday offers some helpful context. “Treasure Truck is growing,” it pointed out in January, citing job listings for software engineers. “The fleet of trucks the retail behemoth runs across cities offering a suite of daily deals is now looking for product leads to scale the company.” The goal of Treasure Truck is to create “new daily habits,” Shareen Pathak wrote. “Plus promote brand loyalty.”

The Amazon Treasure Truck was part of a toy donation event at LAC+USC Medical Center on March 1, 2018 in Los Angeles.
The Amazon Treasure Truck was part of a Marvel-themed toy donation event at LAC+USC Medical Center on March 1, 2018 in Los Angeles.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Disney

Last year, Kerry Flynn of Digiday made the point that Amazon is morphing into a major contender in the advertising business, bringing in a few billion dollars a year for sponsored product and search ads. As such, the company needs to cultivate better relationships with outside brands. What better way than to personally hawk their excess stuff in a super-competitive gamified app experience, paired with a whimsical light-up truck that’s pretty likely to be photographed by onlookers and posted to social media with several question marks? The Treasure Truck typically puts the day’s brand up on a cinema-style marquee.

Anyway, here is another selection of the deals I have missed out on:

  • TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug Lite 2-Pack (40% off)
  • 4-piece car wash kit by Chemical Guys $26.99 (35% off)
  • Honest Beauty 2-in-1 mascara and makeup removing wipes (40% off)
  • HoMedics Triple Action Shiatsu Foot Massager (40% off)

The first time I saw the Treasure Truck in real life, it was raining. I was alerted to free samples of Olay skin care products — a “daily hydrating clean” facial cloth that smells like “grapeseed,” a “deep hydrating eye gel” which is bright teal, and a “Regenerist Whip” moisturizer, which I believe is anti-aging, as it supposedly does something along the lines of “plumping surface cells.” The pickup location nearest to Vox Media’s Manhattan Financial District office was across the river, near the notorious influencer alley underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. I took a ferry.

From across the street, I observed the truck. It was a truck, from which a Britney Spears song was playing loudly. In front, three people in Amazon T-shirts were sitting at a table with a box of Olay samples. “Get the goods!” said one sign. “Moisture for days!” said another. I approached them, and they politely handed me three packets of three samples, so nine samples. What had I done to deserve these riches?

The Amazon workers told me that people come out rain or shine for the Treasure Truck, and they especially came out for a four-foot Fiddle Leaf Fig that had been offered at a 36 percent discount the weekend before.

There are only a handful of Treasure Truck employees in New York and a couple of trucks, a worker said. They spend most days moving the truck from stop to stop throughout the city, doling out products that are typically surplus from vendors who apply to be included in the program. Everything given out on the truck must have a rating of four stars or higher on Amazon’s website, and if the rating slips, the giveaway will be canceled, the goods returned to wherever they came from.

The second time I saw the Treasure Truck in real life, it was raining. I was alerted to a deal on assorted succulents arranged in a 12-inch planter box (44% off) at 10:02 am and signed into the Amazon app at 10:06 am to buy one. Finally, a deal for me! I was on top of it. I was smart. I was fast. I was going to get succulents for my friends, and they would like me better than they did before.

Alas, the succulents were already sold out at Treasure Truck stops in Little Italy, Astoria, Dumbo, Midtown, Downtown Brooklyn, and Koreatown — within four minutes. Regardless, I walked out into the rain and took the train up to the 28th street stop — which I chose because the truck’s presence in Koreatown lined up with my lunch break — feeling very soupy and sorry for myself. When I found it, I said, “I’m a reporter,” and the man in charge said, “I can’t talk to you, but you can send an email to Amazon’s press office.”

Amazon did not respond to my email about this story, so I just kept googling. Last May, an Amazon Treasure Truck burst into flame in the streets of Philadelphia. A few months later, a Reddit user called “horsenbuggy” declared that they had unsubscribed from Treasure Truck notifications. The user said that they had been “addicted to Amazon” since the company was founded (1994), but “this Treasure Truck is just stupid.”

The post continued with a rude comment about millennials, and a couple of sentiments I generally agree with, such as, “Lamb shanks … are not worth leaving work early and fighting crazy traffic to make it to a stop where the truck will only be for 45 minutes.” In November, someone in the Vitamix subreddit announced their first Treasure Truck purchase — a Vitamix — and reported being “extremely excited.” Someone else had done the same, and had already made use of their treasure. “Just ate some cream of asparagus soup. The fact that it makes and heats soup right in the blender was the decision maker for me,” they added.

“That’s awesome,” the original poster replied. “Explain the ‘heats soup right in the blender.’” This is also what I would have said. (Apparently, it has to do with blade friction. I don’t know that I trust that this would generate enough heat to cook food at a safe temperature. But I missed the opportunity to buy a Vitamix off of the Treasure Truck, so I can’t say for sure.)

I will never buy a Vitamix, at least not from the Treasure Truck. I will also never buy:

  • Razer DeathAdder Elite Gaming Mouse (18% off)
  • Breville Compact Smart Oven (23% off)
  • Acer Chromebook 14 (34% off)
  • Sun Bum summer pack (8-oz SPF 30 lotion, 0.45-oz SPF 30 face stick, 0.15-oz SPF 30 coconut lip balm, 30% off)

A Glassdoor listing for part-time Treasure Truck “field ambassadors” is perhaps the only useful piece of information I was able to find. “Associates are Amazon and Treasure Truck brand ambassadors!” the job description read. “They cheerfully and energetically do the following: greet customers, answer questions; fulfill orders; and finally, have fun and interact with customers. They make the experience seamless and easy, while providing delight in their otherwise busy day.”

The point of the Amazon Treasure Truck is to provide delight in our otherwise busy days. The point is for you and me to be delighted by Amazon, and its charming field ambassadors — who I can tell you from experience actually are very charming, and seem to enjoy their jobs more than some other Amazon employees do. It’s possibly also for the company to foster relationships with brands that might consider spending more money on advertising with Amazon. But mostly to delight, in the form of a truck dispersing car wash kits and robot vacuums in 25 major American cities.

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