In one of the year’s least surprising news developments, Amazon enjoyed yet another banner holiday season – the busiest one ever! And for the first time I wasn’t a part of the online throngs of shoppers crowding to its site.
This wasn’t one of those one-man boycotts, at least not a conscious one. And it wasn’t a noble experiment in digital abstention, like unplugging from Facebook for month to learn some life lessons. I’ve been an active, loyal Amazon customer since around the time it went public, and this is a company I admire. I just stopped using Amazon – its store, its Kindles, its Prime service – without even being aware of it.
After years of active Amazon purchases, I bought only one item on Amazon in the last six months (if you must know, it was this item — for a dog’s idiosyncratic ailment — and it was shipped automatically as a subscription). Maybe I’m just an outlier, but I’m setting down the reasons why Amazon has lost its appeal for me to see, if other Amazon customers are feeling the same way – the way Facebook is growing in users even as it seems less essential to many of their daily lives.
Four years ago, when the housing market crashed and the worst recession we’ve seen in decades ensued, consumers reacted in two ways: Many began hunting for bargains, while others simply bought less stuff. My household was in the latter camp, and the experience left me somehow more self-conscious as a consumer. Not only did I realize how many products and services I was buying that I didn’t particularly want, I noticed that the stuff I did want came from companies that I thought were well run.
As I said, I greatly admire Amazon as a company. It’s difficult to think of a more accomplished or broadly respected executive in the tech industry than Jeff Bezos. Time and again, he’s defied convention and blazed his own path, nearly always holding my interests as a consumer as a top priority. He’s saved me a lot of money. And recently, he’s built out a well-designed ecosystem of devices and services for media consumption.
But lately, Amazon just doesn’t seem essential anymore. Part of this is my own personal quirks as a consumer. Although it’s been years now since I bought either a CD or a DVD, I still have a thing for print books. I have no problem with ebooks or the Kindle, I will always just prefer the feeling of a paper volume in my hands when I’m immersed in a good read. But I’m also not getting digital music or video from Amazon. I have gravitated toward other cloud services like Netflix, Hulu, Rdio, TuneIn, Songza, etc.
On reflection, other shifts in my behavior as a consumer are an indirect response to Amazon’s successful business model. Rather than window-shopping in local stores and then buying a discounted item on Amazon, I began doing the reverse. I grew depressed seeing bookstore after bookstore close in my city, and began researching books on Amazon and buying them in local stores, even if they were special orders. Then I started doing the same with other products. Buying less stuff made it manageable to pay a little more to local merchants for the stuff I did want.
Another small shift came after I read Mac McClelland’s bleak account of working in a third-party logistics warehouse, published this spring. Perhaps I’m a softie, but the abject working conditions of many warehouses now give me pause whenever I make the choice whether to shop online or in a local mom-and-pop store. The warehouse McClelland wrote about wasn’t one of Amazon’s, but there have been complaints about working conditions at Amazon facilities and the company has done more than any other to make these warehouses a lynchpin of low-cost online commerce.
Amazon’s tactics are alienating others in the book industry. In a persuasive critique of Amazon last week, Suw Charman-Anderson identified more cracks in Amazon’s business model – a broken review system, emerging competition from Google Books and the barriers Amazon erects for publishers and self-publishing authors. Amazon’s store limits their ability to market to readers and track buying trends. That certainly won’t put off any Amazon customers, but it will encourage publishers and authors to find new venues to engage with readers more directly.
In all of these areas, Amazon has cultivated a virtue – lowering costs for its customers – but is overlooking the collateral damage. And that’s the thing that’s changed – subtly but significantly — about Amazon for me. It’s not the stereotypically evil company that runs roughshod over others in the name of making a profit. Amazon’s profits are controversially small. Amazon has made its customers the paramount concern of its strategy. It has, over the years, saved us a tidy sum of money. And it’s done it with a shopping experience that is about as friction free as it gets.
But I wonder if Amazon hasn’t made low costs too much of a priority. It’s one thing to disrupt book publishers from what is clearly an outdated business model, it’s another to prevent them from building a new business model that relies on consumer behavior data. It’s one thing to make delivery as fast and cheap as it can possibly become, and another to build a logistics system that serves customers at the cost of abusing workers.
To be clear, I’m not writing this to chide Amazon. And I am not saying your experience of Amazon should be like mine. I enjoy telling people how to shop almost as little as they enjoy being lectured what to do. But there is a tendency for big companies to succeed their way right into new problems, to pursue growth in ways that unintentionally alienate customers. I suspect that, if Amazon isn’t facing that problem right now, it could face it in a couple of years.
Yes, Amazon is as successful as it’s ever been. But that is often the very moment when companies have to be careful not to sow seeds of future problems. Look at Apple – never has the company been doing better, yet the stock is languishing amid concerns about what’s next. If enough customers grow disenchanted with the cost of Amazon’s low-cost approach, the company could have a similar problem on its hands.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]