Amazon.com's drive to get packages to customers faster than the competition is delivering an early jolt to South Carolina's newest automotive plant.
Mercedes-Benz Vans, which marked the opening of its $500 million Sprinter factory in North Charleston on Wednesday, said the world's largest online retailer is the biggest customer to date for the commercial cargo vehicles now being made in Palmetto Commerce Park.
The first Sprinter to roll off the new assembly line was for Seattle-based Amazon, which said it will buy 20,000 specially branded vans to support the "Delivery Service Partner" program it announced in June.
The vehicles are expected to be built and on the road within a year, said Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations.
"I know we initially said 5,000 vans, and I know you guys have been working like crazy so I hope you won't be too upset with this, but we've decided we're actually going to need 20,000 vans," Clark said at the plant opening event.
"To be honest, I suddenly got some goosebumps," responded Volker Mornhinweg, head of van division at Mercedes-Benz parent Damiler AG.
Small business owners will work with third-party fleet management companies to order customized vans and get special leases in order to keep their startup costs low, according to the companies.
Clark said the vans will deliver "anything and everything" the retailer offers — packages from online sales, groceries from its Whole Foods chain and even meals from local restaurants.
"There is no limit to what they can do," he said.
Amazon said it has received "tens of thousands" of applications for the delivery partnership. The demand prompted it to increase its original Sprinter van order.
"We have been blown away," said Clark, who declined to specify the number of applicants.
The delivery program is part of the e-commerce giant's plan to assert more control over how its packages get from its warehouses to customers.
Amazon is recruiting small business owners who will work with third-party fleet management companies to lease the customized vans at what it called low rates.
One goal is to lessen its reliance on outside transportation vendors, such as UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.
Moody's retail analyst Charlie O'Shea said the new partnership program can help the company expand same-day deliveries and compete with brick-and-mortar retailers that offer curbside pick-up services for online orders.
"This is an area where Amazon needs to up its game a little bit," he said.
In a related development, the company confirmed late last month that it will build a large tent-like package delivery center near the former General Dynamics plant on U.S. Highway 78 in Ladson. It will employ about 40 workers.
Amazon said the end game is much the same as the van purchases — to speed up the delivery process.
"Packages are shipped here from neighboring Amazon fulfillment and sortation centers and loaded into vehicles to get delivered to customers," a spokeswomen told The Post and Courier last week.
Amazon operates two distribution warehouses in South Carolina — in West Columbia and Spartanburg.