I often read very disturbing accounts of how Amazon treats its warehouse employees. I am already acquainted with the comic opera that is Amazon customer service. (Although if you write an articulate letter to Mr. Bezos, and have a valid concern, I must say that you get connected to very intelligent and diligent people who have the power to throw lightning bolts.) I am aware how difficult it is for anyone but Amazon to make money selling through Amazon. Amazon uses really nasty little pricing tactics to beat out the independent sellers who sell through it. Some say that Amazon has become worse than Walmart.
If so, it has also become more useful than Walmart. It has become a way that, without:
- patronizing Walmart;
- wandering a building the size of Liechtenstein;
- watching simian children who really just need corporal punishment in liberal measure;
- stepping over bodily wastes and those who collapsed after discharging them;
- meeting the vacant stare of a Walbot;
- being ‘greeted;’
- viewing the gluteal creases, lateral mammary declines, pre-gluteal tattoos advertising coital attitudes, dorsal corpulence, evidence of recent and disappointing commode use attempts, ochre jellies, green slimes, black puddings, grey oozes, and the rest of the D&D Monster Manual,
- Hunt up an old hockey guide from the 1970s and check now and then to see if someone sells one for a reasonable price.
- Go shopping for cyan Samsung CLP-300 toner, ant baits, BioClean, the most recent DVD season of Boardwalk Empire, and a Sahaptin/English dictionary–and find them, and buy them.
- Maintain a list of all the stuff I might someday buy, and on a whim, throw an item into an order. Maintain another, private list of all the stuff I regularly buy, but don’t want people to know about, and at need, reach right into there and buy this or that.
- Read what other people think about a product, filter out reactions that are ignorant or douchey, and form an impression of whether I myself would be satisfied.
- Browse books beyond the temporal limits of the waking day, at will.
You’ve got to admit the appeal. If it’s just books, sure, there are other booksellers. But it’s hard to find a one-stop shop that automatically carries the air filters, sports team t-shirts, new thriller, MP3 album, and blender on your shopping list. This way, you do not have to create logins at jimsfilterempire.com, licensedgreed.com, Powell’s (wait, you already have one there), Itunes (where you will let the Apple iCamel’s iNose under too many of your tents), and damemixalot.com. You do not have to take your chances with their service or lack thereof.
Would I prefer to buy all of the above at local stores, paying local merchants? Sure. And if I would like to spend seven hours on the phone speaking with underpaid people whose own best interests are served by just pretending to go check, then telling me they don’t carry what I want, or four gallons of gas and two miles of walking in futile effort to see for myself if I can find even one of them, I can do that. But local retailers generally don’t pay people enough to give a damn, cannot possibly be certain to carry the thing I need, and are often owned (at least, in Boise, which is a very entrepreneurial place) by sociopaths who just couldn’t get along with anyone else long enough to hold a job. And will pepper their establishments with political and/or religious references. Not always, just often enough to turn one off.
It ends up with going to Amazon. Knowing full well that one is helping to fund the sweatshop business model. So if that’s what’s going to happen, how to salvage any sense of social responsibility?
For me, it’s about convenience rather than price. Here’s one thing you can do. Amazon will still get paid, but it will not reward their tactics.
Suppose you’re browsing for more than books, which means you can’t just shop at Powell’s. You’re buying a USB cable, nipple cream, a book for your husband, a stuffed animal, polyhedra dice, the last version of Quicken that didn’t suck, and a Halloween costume (child size) of a Uighur insurgent. Your odds are excellent at Amazon.
In fact, it is very likely that you will have many shopping options for some products. Amazon itself will be one of them. Take a close look at the pricing. The minimum freight charge for any order is $3.99. Notice how, in so many cases, Amazon offers the item for $3.97 or so more, in the assumption that you’ll buy enough to get free shipping. Examples:
- The lowest-priced seller for the book lists it for $5.00. Amazon lists it for $8.97, but it’s eligible for free shipping. $8.99 vs. $8.97.
- You can get the Quicken for $45.00. Amazon has it for $48.95, so it gets free shipping without having to buy anything else. $48.99 vs. $48.95.
- Just to get rid of it, hoping to make a little money on the freight overage, the seller lists the book for $0.01. So do five other sellers. Amazon’s price? $3.98, just buy enough other stuff for free shipping. $4.00 vs. $3.98.
You see the trend. Any time you see Amazon’s price just shy of $4 higher than one of their independent sellers, that’s what is happening. Since Amazon will combine it all into a shipment, and has significant freight negotiation leverage, their freight cost assures them a better margin than it appears. Freight out is often a profit center, the one you never really consider.
So if you want to feel better about it, just pay the other guy what will work out to be a nickel to a dollar more. That’s all you have to do. Sure, Amazon will still get its cut, but your order will not be packaged by a suffering, footsore individual whose pick quota was just increased from 75 per hour to 100. You’ll support an independent who probably also has a retail operation. You still won’t have create one more login. And you won’t be rewarding that devilish pricing tactic.