Beware of Amazon

I like I admit it. I do buy things from there. But they also worry me. They are trying to sell everything, and that means that if they succeed, they’re going to put other stores out of business. Some deserve it. Most don’t.

I also like Jeff Bezos. On the whole he does a good job of providing what the consumer wants. But there is a certain ruthlessness behind both the man and the company. They don’t care who they drive out of business.

As a long-time supporter of local stores, I have to pass along a warning from Orson Scott Card about Amazon’s new app:

Which brings me to Amazon’s new app that allows people to take their smartphones into a bookstore, scan the barcode of something they sell, and then see if Amazon sells it for less.

Then, if you buy it from Amazon — right then, on your phone, while standing in the store that you actually sawthe item in — they give you a discount of five percent of the purchase price, up to five dollars.

If all you care about in this world is today’s price, then this is a wonderful idea.

But think about this for just a few moments.

Where did you see the item?You found it in a bricks-and-mortar store. That’s where you actually saw it on display, handled it, decided you wanted to buy it.

What will happen if you buy from Amazon? Next time that store won’t be there.They’ll go out of business. So where will you find the item you want to buy? Where will you see it, handle it, decide?

What you’re doing, if you use this app, is becoming Amazon’s corporate spy, allowing them to undercut the competition and kill your local store.

Like I said, I worry about Amazon. If we allow the local stores to go out of business, and then something happens to Amazon, then what? What will be left? I felt this way before I became a store-owner. Though I do occasionally go to Amazon for things that are harder to find, I do my best to buy locally. I seek out the smaller, one-of-a-kind shops. They deserve your dollar as much or more than Bezos and company.

That said, I don’t know that this app is going to make that much difference at first. I think most people, unless there is a significant savings, are going to pass on buying the item right in front of them to order it online. Instant gratification still holds sway in the buying process.

However, as with most every other large internet company, Amazon sells information as well as goods/services. As Card said, you will become their corporate data-drone, a brick-n-morter search bot. They can’t afford to pay people to go gather pricing information from their competitors, and why should they if they can get you to do it for free!? You may decide to buy locally every time, but every time you use the app to check the price on something you’re giving Amazon information that can and will be used against their competition.

You should get paid for that kind of work. Crowdsourcing seldom favors the crowd. And, frankly, the shop-owner should get paid for the free showroom services they are now unwillingly offering to Amazon. This from Richard Russo of the New York Times:

A few miles down the road from where I live on the coast of Maine, a talented young bookseller named Lacy Simons recently opened a small bookshop called Hello Hello, and in her blog she wrote eloquently about her relationship to “everyone who comes in my store. If you let me, I’ll get to know you through your reading life and strive to find books that resonate with you. Amazon asks you to take advantage of my knowledge & my education (which I’m still paying for) and treat the space I rent, the heat & light I pay for, the insurance policies I need to be here, the sales tax I gather for the state, the gathering place I offer, the books and book culture I believe in so much that I’ve wagered everything on it” as if it were “a showroom for goods you can just get more cheaply through them.”

Amazon already has a significant advantage in their bulk pricing and lack of sales tax. I used to be opposed to efforts to force internet companies to charge sales tax, but I’m starting to change my mind. The reality is that to save ourselves a few cents on the dollar, we are undermining the communities in which we live. We complain about our local economies while continuing to send our money out of state. We’re bargain-shopping our way into the slums, so to speak.

I like Russo’s conclusion:

As I see it, the problem with Amazon stems from the fact that though it started out as a bookseller, it isn’t anymore, not really. It sells everything now, and it sells it all aggressively. Maybe Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe because it’s simply too big to care. In a way it’s become, like the John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie “Spaceballs” — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend.

Amazon and their tactics is part of a larger internet movement, the descent toward “everything for free”. The relentless drive by consumers to get things inexpensively–or free–will ultimately result in a world where all our entertainment and information will be produced by people who either have their own agenda to serve, or by the infinite number of monkies.

It will be a “YouTube World,” and not in the best sense. Yes, there are some genuinely clever and entertaining videos on YouTube. But compare that with the amount of videos uploaded daily, and you’ll find the percentage of quality/valuable content is very, very low. For every “How It Should Have Ended” (which is sponsored) you’ll get several hundred (if not thousand) clips of Uncle Ernie’s talking butt trick, teenagers filming each other making faces on their iPhones, and lame attempts to imitate a more successful clip.

We’ve got to understand that anything worth having is going to have to cost something. It cuts both ways. If something is not valued, its price will drop. If the price of something drops, it will stop being valuable.

Most importantly we, as consumers, need to realize that we are worth something. Information about our various habits is no less valuable just because it’s gathered wholesale. There may not be anything we can do to keep from being tracked while we’re shopping on a website, but there is no reason why we should voluntarily let them track us all the time, or gather information for them. Our time is worth something. Information is worth something. We shouldn’t sell ourselves so cheaply, but we do because we think of ourselves as only one of millions. That is true, but you are still one, and the only one of you. Make them earn their information.

I think I will take a stand on this. I currently have Amazon Prime. When it expires I will not renew it. That will make it more expensive for me to shop on Amazon, and I will do it less. I need to value and patronize the local stores more, even if it costs me more. Otherwise someday, when I really need them, they won’t be there anymore.

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