Amazon Delivers Holiday Jeer

15 Dec

Amazon's message for small businesses.

Oh Amazon, you bitch.

It’s been a few days since the Internet giant revealed its less-than-stealthy plan to turn customers into de facto spies, encouraging them to creep into unsuspecting brick-and-mortar stores, scan prices with a phone app and then peace out, all in the interest of a 5% discount on their next purchase. The day-long endeavor was pretty successful—use of Amazon’s app tripled—but it also pissed off booksellers and other small-business minded peoples, who say if you’re going to be the industry behemoth that’s undercutting prices, you still don’t have to be a dick about it.

Personally, I love Amazon. I’ve been a devoted customer for almost 10 years, an affair that started, as I mentioned earlier this week, with my 2003 purchase of Mein Kampf. But I also have a very special place in my heart for small bookstores, even if the prospect of actually owning one someday seems increasingly remote. For me, each has its purpose: Amazon is where I go to find out everything I need to know about a book: what it’s about, what readers thought, what else the author has written, etc. It’s where I organize my own rather chaotic list of potential reads (my Wish List is 223 items long) and it’s where I turn when I need a book quickly and don’t have the time or energy to track it down in person.

But while I like Amazon as a hub of all things book, I have all manner of book-buying idiosyncrasies that cannot be indulged online: I like touching books, paging through them and smelling them (deal with it). I like to buy the third or fourth book in the display, the one that’s been touched the least. I prefer to buy two or three books at a time. Finally, I like being physically surrounded by books; if tangible stores didn’t exist, I suspect there’d be some homemade hardcover forts in my future.

So in my head, there’s a place for both: the Amazon, with its convenient tools and endless inventory, and the indie bookseller, with its musty smell and staff of minimum-wage English Lit majors. Yay cooperation! Which is why it pains me to admit that I too am struggling with this latest marketing shenanigan. On the one hand, it’s worth pointing out that Amazon is technically a Main Street success story, a smallish Seattle website launched in 1995 whose revenues now top $30 billion. Whenever people lambaste companies for being too big and detached (and Amazon had its haters long before this latest hullabaloo) I have to wonder: At exactly what point is a company supposed to stop growing? When, precisely, do you go from being a startup to a sellout? Is it when you hit 1,000 employees? 10,000? Is it when revenues exceed $1 million? $1 billion? For Amazon specifically, was it when they stopped selling just books, or started selling them cheaper? Or is it just an arbitrary thing, the kind of ephemeral national sentiment that results in us all knowing a Walmart is bad and a Mom & Pop’s Clothing Shoppe is good.

At the same time, Amazon really does know how to be a jerk. Not only is the 5% discount a rather tone-deaf interpretation of customer satisfaction, but it comes as Amazon is already taking heat for doing everything in its power—including closing warehouses and eliminating jobs—to avoid paying state sales taxes (though maybe not for much longer.)

So I don’t know. Is it legal and financially acceptable for Amazon to use its own mobile app to get customers to do price research while also highlighting for said customers the company’s own extremely competitive pricing? Sure, it’s legal, and probably kind of genius. But is it right? Ehhhh. At a time when our country seems embroiled in a debate over the merits of the free market, it seems like it would be in every large company’s interest to at least give off the appearance of civility, and to avoid openly shitting on small business.

Of course, the free-market enthusiasts would say the onus is on consumers to shop where they want to shop and support the businesses they want to support. And that’s true. I’m sure if I spent a lifetime buying books exclusively from Amazon, any attempt to eventually open my own indie bookstore would be met with karmic retribution—some sort of massive fire or wild animal attack. But asking consumers to make informed buying decisions doesn’t make it okay to nudge them in the direction of assholedom. There’s a difference between me choosing Dunkin Donuts, and Dunkin Donuts saying they’ll give me $5 to go throw coffee at a Starbucks barista. One’s capitalism, and one’s just rude.

2 Responses to “Amazon Delivers Holiday Jeer”

  1. Marisa December 15, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    My wish list is longer than your wish list.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The End of the World As We Know It « Sorry Television - January 10, 2012

    […] of Amazon.com shopping? Methinks yes. It’s ironic that the company whose smartphone app is notorious for scanning barcodes (ostensibly on non-digital products) somehow failed to integrate those same products with its […]

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