Yesterday was Amazon Prime Day, a day on which Amazon offers Black Friday-style sales to its customers in an attempt to capture their back-to-school dollars. We bought some things: a car seat, some hair brushes, a replacement Kindle Paperwhite. None of those are items we would not have bought in a big box or chain store, so I figured we might as well get them cheaply.
But this year, I also didn’t buy some things that I normally would have. I passed on several toys that I want to give the girls for their birthdays and for Christmas. That is because lately I have experienced a growing ambivalence about Amazon, to the point that this year I have decided to do one small thing about it.
My First Experiences with Amazon
On one hand, growing up a bookworm in rural Kentucky was wonderful. There wasn’t much else going on, so books made it possible to learn and go anywhere. On the other hand, I simply couldn’t get enough books. I lived within walking distance of the branch library, which shared half of the police station. But, as one might imagine from such a locale, the collection was rather small. I quickly read through all offerings of interest to me.
The nearest bookstore was an hour away. It was always a delicious treat to visit and see the books my weird little heart wanted, not what the library thought there was demand for. I would spend hours browsing the shelves. Those occasions were rare, though. Money was even rarer. I worked throughout high school, but only for a part-time high school help salary.
When Amazon arrived, it was a revelation. I was suddenly able to have any book I wanted. Moreover, the books were so much cheaper, which meant I was able to buy more! All it took was a $25 gift card (the free shipping minimum). As silly as it may be to thank a corporation, I am grateful to Amazon for giving me access to so many ideas in a time when I lived in a content desert.
Fast forward to a decade later, and Amazon has killed most brick-and-mortar bookstores. It seemed like they might eradicate them completely, but the remaining indie bookstores have banded together to create something of a renaissance. They are now less so places of pure commerce and instead highly-curated stores geared toward community-specific needs. These bookstores are incredibly cool and such a joy to browse. Still, I can’t help but feel sad that there used to be so many more of them.
My experience of books and Amazon are only one example of my growing ambivalence about Amazon in general. While Amazon used media as its launchpad, they have since moved into most imaginable markets. Most recently, they added fashion, prescription drugs, and fresh groceries. None of that is inherently bad. Although they will likely surpass them in the next 5-10 years, Wal-Mart still sells more stuff than Amazon.
Like Wal-Mart, Amazon relies on low-income labor in its facilities. Having done some holiday temp work in a fulfillment center, I believe the stories of subpar working conditions and poor benefits. Both Amazon and Wal-Mart choose to operate in areas where otherwise there are not a lot of jobs (like rural Kentucky where I grew up). While I know folks are grateful for the jobs, it doesn’t mean they have to be bad jobs, particularly given how much money the companies make. European workers were striking this Prime Day, over those conditions and lack of benefits.
The big concern I have with Amazon specifically, is that they are pretty much the only source when it comes to e-commerce, and use it to brutal, innovation-stifling advantage. While they don’t sell more overall than Wal-Mart, they account for about half of all online retail, period. This lets them bully publishers on their pricing models. Small retailers that begin to trend often have no choice but to take part in Amazon’s third party seller network. If they refuse, Amazon is known for duplicating the product or idea for themselves and selling it on their much larger platform, shutting down the original retailer. No one else has a chance, because no one else has such an online presence to capture the trends in their infancy.
The fact that makes me want to pull out my tinfoil hat the most is Amazon’s cloud storage model, which accounts for 10% of their business. Their cloud storage business houses the Netflix streaming files and the papers of the Pentagon. If Amazon’s infrastructure goes down, we not only lose our entertainment but our government. (Which actually happened one day last year.) That seems inherently unhealthy for our society.
(For a bigger, more entertaining summary of the freaky weirdness that parts of Amazon has become, check out episode “The M Word” of Bad With Money With Gaby Dunn.)
What I’m Doing About It
We still bought some things for Prime Day. You may have, too. I offer no shame for anyone who needs to buy from Amazon because they live in a content desert, or who just doesn’t have the cash to get products from anywhere else. I personally decided that if I would have gotten it from a box store anyway, I might as well buy it and keep the cash for other pursuits.
But for most discretionary items, like toys, books, and games, we have wonderful local shops. This is intentional; one reason Mr. Steward and I decided to live in the city that we do because of its vibrant local economy. Yet, last Christmas (which is when we do the bulk of our non-grocery/non-secondhand spending) I can’t remember if we bought a single thing that did not come from a chain store. I want to fix that this year, by pursuing a completely locally-sourced Christmas.
We are privileged to have this option. We are lucky to live in an area with enough small, local shops to make this a possibility. We’re also lucky that we have a large enough income that the roughly 30% markup we’ll have to pay on items is something we can afford (although I am also hoping this drives us to simply buy less for Christmas). But I’ve come to believe that since we are the exact demographic who can do it, we should. I enjoy these local shops, and want to support them. The best, most direct way is to buy stuff there, even if it hurts my frugal heart to know I could have gotten it cheaper from Amazon.
Sometimes the monetary cost is cheap, but the social cost is too high.