How Amazon’s relentless pursuit of profit is squeezing us all—and what we can do about it
By David Dayen
Source: In These Times
AMAZON IS AN ONLINE RETAILER. It also runs a marketplace for other online retailers. It’s also a shipper for those sellers, and a lender to them, and a warehouse, an advertiser, a data manager and a search engine. It also runs brick-and-mortar bookstores. And grocery stores.
There are over 100 million Amazon Prime subscribers in the United States—more than half of all U.S. households. Amazon makes 45 percent of all e-commerce sales. Amazon is also a product manufacturer; its Alexa controls two-thirds of the digital assistant market, and the Kindle represents 84 percentof all e-readers. Amazon created its own holiday, Prime Day, and the surge in demand for Prime Day discounts, followed by a drop afterward, skewed the nation’s retail sales figures with a 1.8% bump in July 2017.
Oh, it’s also a major television and film studio. Its CEO owns a national newspaper. And it runs a streaming video game company called Twitch. And its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, runs an astonishing portion of the Internet and U.S. financial infrastructure. And it wants to be a logistics company. And a furniture seller. It’s angling to become one of the nation’s largest online fashion designers. It recently picked up an online pharmacy and partnered with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffett to create a healthcare company. And at the same time, it’s competing with JPMorgan, pushing Amazon Pay as a digital-based alternative to credit cards and Amazon Lending as a source of capital for its small business marketplace partners.
To quote Liberty Media chair John Malone, himself a billionaire titan of industry, Amazon is a “Death Star” moving its super-laser “into striking range of every industry on the planet.” If you are engaging in any economic activity, Amazon wants in, and its position in the market can distort and shape you in vital ways.
Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up Amazon, along with the FTC’s new oversight and investigation, has spurred a conversation on the Left about its overwhelming power. No entity has held the potential for this kind of dominance since the railroad tycoons of the first Gilded Age were brought to heel. Whether you share concerns about Amazon’s economic and political power or you just like getting free shipping on cheap toilet paper, you should at least know the implications of living in Amazon’s world—so you can assess whether it’s the world you want, and how it could be different.
BOOKSELLERS WERE THE FIRST TO FIND THEMSELVES AT THE TIP OF AMAZON’S SPEAR, at the company’s founding in 1994. Years of Amazon peddling books below cost shuttered thousands of bookstores. Today, Amazon sells 42 percent of all books in America.
With such a large share of the market, Amazon determines what ideas reach readers. It ruthlessly squeezes publishers on wholesale costs; in 2014, it deliberately slowed down deliveries of books published by Hachette during a pricing dispute. By stocking best-sellers over independents and backlist copies, and giving publishers less money to work with, Amazon homogenizes the market. Publishers can’t afford to take a chance on a book that Amazon won’t keep in its inventory. “The core belief of bookselling is that we need to have the ideas out there so we can discuss them,” says Seattle independent bookseller Robert Sindelar. “You don’t want one company deciding, only based on profitability, what choice we have.”
These issues in just the book sector are a microcosm of Amazon’s effect on commerce.
The term “retail apocalypse” took hold in 2017 amid bankruptcies of established chains like The Limited, RadioShack, Payless ShoeSource and Toys “R” Us. According to frequent Amazon critic Stacy Mitchell, “more people lost jobs in general-merchandise stores than the total number of workers in the coal industry” in 2017.
Amazon isn’t the only cause; private equity looting must share much of the blame, and a shift to e-commerce was always going to hurt brick-and-mortar stores. But Amazon transformed a diverse collection of website sales into one mammoth business with the logistical power to perform rapid delivery of millions of products and a strategy to underprice everyone. That transformation accelerated a decline going back to the Great Recession (and much earlier for booksellers). Analysts at Swiss bank UBS estimate that every percentage point e-commerce takes from brick-and-mortar translates into 8,000 store closures, and right now e-commerce only has a 16 percent market share.
Take Harry Copeland (or, as he calls himself, “Crazy Harry”) of Harry’s Famous Flowers in Orlando, Fla., at one time a 40-employee retail/wholesale business. Revenue at his operation has shrunk by half since 2008, equal to millions of dollars in gross sales. “The internet … killed us,” Harry says. “I was in a Kroger, this guy walks up and says, ‘I want to apologize. It’s so easy to go on the internet.’ I said, ‘I did your wedding, I did flowers for your babies, and you’re buying [flowers] on the internet?’ ” Even Harry’s own employees receive Amazon packages at the shop every day. In January, tired of the fight, Harry sold his shop after 36 years in business.
Amazon was particularly deadly to the original “everything stores,” the department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney that anchor malls. When the anchor stores shut down, foot traffic slows and smaller shops struggle. Retailers are planning to close more than 4,000 stores in 2019; the 41,201 retail job losses in the first two months of this year were the highest since the Great Recession.
Dead malls trigger not only blight but also property tax losses. The broader shift to online shopping also transfers economic activity from local businesses to corporate coffers, like Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.
Some of these failed retail spaces have been scooped up, ironically, by Amazon’s suite of physical stores, such as Whole Foods. Amazon also skillfully pits cities against one another and wins tax breaks for its warehouse and data center facilities, starving local budgets even more.
Amazon, of course, argues it is the best friend small business ever had. Jeff Bezos’ 2019 annual letter indicated that 58% of all sales on the website are made by over 2 million independent third-party sellers, who are mostly small in size. In this rendering, Amazon is just a mall, opening its doors for the little guy to access billions of potential customers. “Third-party sellers are kicking our first-party butt,” Bezos exclaimed.
It was a line I repeated to several merchants, mostly to snickers. Take Crazy Harry. In late 2017, Amazon reached out with the opportunity for Harry’s Famous Flowers to sell through its website. Sales representatives promised instant success. “We went live in November,” he says. “I made three transactions, [including] one on Valentine’s Day and one on Christmas.” The closest delivery to his shop was 34 miles away. By the time Harry paid his $39.99 monthly subscription fee for selling on Amazon and a 15% cut of sales, his check came to $6.92. “The gas was $50,” he says.
It wasn’t hard to find the source of the trouble: When Harry searched on Amazon under “flowers in Orlando,” his shop didn’t come up. Without including his name in the search, there was no way for customers to find him. Before long, Harry closed his Amazon account.
Crazy Harry’s troubles could be a function of Amazon running a platform that’s too big to manage. Two million Americans, close to 1% of the U.S. population, sell goods on Amazon. “There’s so much at stake for these sellers,” says Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee who now runs the consulting site eCommerceChris.com. “They’ve left jobs [to sell on Amazon]. They are supporting themselves and their families.”
Third-party sellers have been a great deal for Amazon—unsurprisingly, since Amazon sets the terms. Sellers pay a flat subscription fee and a percentage of sales, and an extra fee for “Fulfillment by Amazon,” for which Amazon handles customer service, storage and shipping through its vast logistics network. Fee revenue grew to nearly $43 billion in 2018, equal to more than one out of every four dollars that third-party sellers earned.
In other words, Amazon is collecting rent on every sale on its website. This strategy increases selection and convenience for customers, but the sellers, who have nowhere else to go, can get squeezed in the process. Once on the website, sellers are at the mercy of Amazon’s algorithmic placement in search results. They must also navigate rivals’ dirty tricks (like fake one-star reviews that sink sellers in search results) and counterfeit products. And if you get past all that, you must fight the boss level: Amazon, which has 138 house brands. Armed with all the data on sellers’ businesses, Amazon can easily figure out what’s hot and what can be cheaply produced, and then out-compete its own sellers with lower prices and prioritized search results.
Any failure to follow Amazon’s always-changing rules of the road can get a seller suspended, and in that case, Amazon not only stops all future sales, but refuses to release funds from prior sales. And all sellers must sign mandatory arbitration agreements that prevent them from suing Amazon. Several consultants I interviewed talked of sellers crying on the phone, finding themselves trapped after upending their lives to sell on Amazon.
WHILE RETAIL WORKERS LOSE JOBS, AMAZON PICKS UP SOME OF THE UNEMPLOYMENT SLACK, hiring personnel to assemble its packages, make its electronics, and deliver its goods, with a U.S. workforce of more than 200,000, and another 100,000 seasonal workers—though 2018 research from the Conference Board confirmed the jobs created by e-commerce companies like Amazon do not make up for the loss of millions of retail jobs.
Plus, the experience of being a cog in Amazon’s great machine is, shall we say, unhealthy. We know much about the horrors of being an Amazon warehouse worker in the United States. These workplaces are aggressively anti-union. Amazon sets quotas for how many orders are fulfilled, monitoring a worker’s every move. Poor performers may be fired, typically over email. The daily monotony and pressure to perform has pushed workers to suicidal despair. A Daily Beast investigation found 189 instances between October 2013 and October 2018 of 911 calls summoning assistance to deal with suicide attempts or other mental-health emergencies at Amazon warehouses. And even these grunt jobs are insecure; Amazon had to reassure people this year that it wouldn’t turn over all warehouse jobs to robots, even as it rolled out machines that box orders.
Amazon’s other jobs, while less scrutinized than the warehouse workers, can be just as brutal. Thousands of delivery drivers wear Amazon uniforms, use Amazon equipment and work out of Amazon facilities. But they are not technically Amazon employees; they work for outside contractors called delivery service partners. These workers do not qualify for the guaranteed $15 minimum wage Bezos announced to much fanfare last year.
Contracting work out lets Amazon dodge liability for poor labor practices, a trick used by many corporations. At one such contractor in the mid-Atlantic, TL Transportation, one former employee (who requested anonymity) described the work as “running, running, running, rushing. There was no break time.” According to pay stubs, TL built two hours of overtime into its base rate, which is illegal under U.S. labor law. Other workers reported they always worked longer than the time on their pay stubs. Driver Tyhee Hickman of Pennsylvania testified to having to urinate into bottles to maintain the schedule.
Amazon runs plenty of air freight these days as well, through an “Amazon Air” fleet of planes branded with the Amazon logo—but these are also contracted out. At Atlas Air, one of three cargo carriers with Amazon business, pilots have been working without a new union contract since 2011. Atlas pays pilots 30% to 60% below the industry standard, according to Captain Daniel Wells, an Atlas Air pilot and president of the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224. Planes are understaffed. “We’ve been critically short of crews,” Wells says. “Everyone is scrambling to keep operations going.”
The go-go-go schedule leaves little time for mechanics; planes go out with stickers indicating deferred maintenance. One Atlas Air flight carrying Amazon packages crashed in Texas in February, killing three workers.
EVEN WHILE DRIVING WORKERS AT A FRENETIC PACE, Amazon doesn’t always deliver on its promise of convenience and efficiency. Many products no longer arrive in 48 hours under Prime’s guaranteed two-day shipping. It’s so challenging to reach customer service that Amazon sells a book on its website about how to do that. Whole Foods shoppers who have groceries delivered get bizarre food substitutions without warning.
Even as two-day shipping is creaking, Amazon has announced a move to one-day shipping, which will strain its systems even further while forcing competitors to adjust. Amazon’s one-day shipping announcement alone caused retail stocks to plummet on April 26, before any changes were implemented.
This feedback effect reveals how Amazon is not merely riding the wave of online retail’s convenience; only a company with ambitions as vast as Amazon’s could influence Fortune 500 business models across America.
Some retailers have given in. Walmart quickly announced its own next-day shipping. Kohl’s sells Amazon Echo devices. Target has bought up competitors to compete with Amazon on a larger scale. Call it concentration creep; one giant business triggers the need for others to get big, too. Corporate America is at once terrified of Amazon and reshaping itself to imitate it.
Take Amazon’s ever more sophisticated ploys to modify consumer behavior. With “personalized pricing,” Amazon uses the data of what someone has paid in the past to test what that person is willing to pay. The price of an item featured in the “buy” box on Amazon’s website may change multiple times per day, and can be tailored to individual shoppers. Amazon has charged more for Kindles based on a buyer’s location, and has steered people to higher-priced products where it makes a greater profit, rather than cheaper versions from outside sellers.
Now, even big-box stores have electronic price tags that retailers can “surge price” when demand increases. Amazon’s Whole Foods stores have become a testing ground for advancing this technique. Prices shown on electronic tags are tested, combined with discounts for Prime members, and relentlessly tweaked.
The potential damage to society from personalized pricing is significant, notes Maurice Stucke, a professor at the University of Tennessee. “It’s not just price discrimination, but also behavioral discrimination,” he says. “Getting people to buy things they might not have otherwise purchased, at the highest price they’re willing to pay.”
Amazon has plenty of options for this behavioral nudging, from listing a fake higher price and crossing it out to make it look like the customer is getting a deal, to its work on a facial recognition system using phone or computer cameras to authenticate purchases. With this tool, Amazon could theoretically read faces and increase prices when someone shows excitement about a product. Amazon has already licensed facial recognition software to local police units for criminal investigations, to outcry from privacy groups.
Then there’s Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, a powerful tool for manipulation. Alexa was designed to “be like the Star Trek computer,” said Paul Cutsinger, Amazon’s head of voice design education, at a developer conference earlier this year. Users can ask Alexa to play music and podcasts, answer questions, run health and wellness programs, set appointments, make purchases, even raise the temperature in the shower.
Psychologist Robert Epstein, who has pioneered research into search engine manipulation, has done preliminary studies on Alexa. “It looks like you can very easily impact the thinking and decision-making and purchases of people who are undecided,” Epstein says. “That unfortunately gives a small number of companies tremendous power to influence people without them being aware.” For example, Alexa can suggest a wine to go with the pizza you just ordered. It can also encourage you to set up a recurring purchase, the price of which may then go up based on Amazon’s list price.
The influence only increases as Alexa takes in more data. We know that Alexa is constantly watching and listening to users, transcribing what it hears and even transmitting some of that data back to a team of human listeners at Amazon, who “refine” the machine’s comprehension. The surveillance doesn’t only happen on Alexa, but in the smart home devices it integrates with, and on the website where Amazon tracks search and purchase activity. Amazon even has a Ring doorbell and in-home monitor, which sends information back to Amazon. There is no escape. “Devices all around us are watching everything we do, talking to each other, sharing data,” Epstein says. “We’re embedded in a surveillance network.”
EVEN AS IT’S INFLUENCING OUR BEHAVIOR, Amazon is transforming our physical world. José Holguín-Veras, a logistics and urban freight expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, estimates that in 2009, there was one daily internet-derived delivery for every 25 people. By 2017, he calculates, this had tripled. “The number of deliveries to households is now larger than the number of deliveries to commercial establishments,” Holguín-Veras says. “In skyscrapers in New York City where 5,000 people live, it’s 750 deliveries a day.”
Think of the difference between one trip to the grocery store for the week, and five or ten trips from the warehouse to your house. Our streets are too narrow and our traffic too plentiful to handle that additional traffic without crippling congestion. Plus, every idling car, and every extra delivery truck on the road, spews more carbon into the atmosphere. Our cities are not designed for the level of freight that instant delivery demands.
More deliveries also means more people staying indoors. “One thing I think about is how much we overlook the community and democracy value of running errands,” says Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “These exchanges—chatting with someone in line, bumping into a neighbor on the street, talking with the store owner—may not be all that significant personally. But this kind of interaction pays off for us collectively in ways we don’t think about or measure or account for in policy-making.”
In These Times asked Frank McAndrew of Knox College, who has researched social isolation, whether Amazon’s perfect efficiency could be alienating. He wasn’t ready to make a definitive statement but did see some red flags. “I do think we’re sort of wired to interact with real people in face-to-face situations,” McAndrew says. “When most of our interactions take place virtually, or with Alexa, it’s not going to be satisfying.”
FOR MOST OF OUR HISTORY, Americans didn’t require a personal digital assistant to answer our every whim. Why are we now reordering our social and economic lives, so one man can accumulate more money than anyone in the history of the planet?
One answer is that Amazon has paid as much attention to capturing government as it has to captivating customers. Amazon’s lobbying spending is among the highest of any company in America. After winning a nationwide procurement contract, over 1,500 cities and states can buy office items through the Amazon Business portal; a federal procurement platform is on the way. Amazon Web Services has the inside track on a $10 billion cloud contract to manage sensitive data for the Pentagon, something it already does for the CIA. That’s part of the reason why Amazon moved its second headquarters (after an absurd, game show-style bidding war that gave the company access to valuable data on hundreds of cities’ planning decisions) to a suburb of Washington, D.C., the seat of national power.
Making the directors of the regulatory state dependent on your services is a genius move. What political figure would dare crack down on the behavior of a trusted partner like Amazon?
In fact, Amazon has relied on government largesse since day one. No sales taxes for online purchases gave it a pricing advantage over other sellers (while a 2018 Supreme Court ruling changed that, the damage had been done). No carbon taxes helped Amazon build energy-intensive businesses dependent on fossil fuels for transportation and server farms. A lack of antitrust enforcement created a path for Amazon to super-size into an e-commerce monopoly. Weak federal labor rules let Amazon stamp out collective bargaining and rely on independent contractors. Mandatory arbitration locked third-party sellers inside Amazon’s private appeals process. Favorable tax law allowed Amazon to apply annual losses in previous years to its past two tax returns, paying no federal taxes on billions in income.
Of course, these rules helped all corporate giants and made executives filthy rich, often at the expense of workers. But Amazon tests the laissez-faire system in unique ways. In a future where Amazon broadens its control over our lives such that citizens have nowhere else to shop, businesses have nowhere else to sell, workers have nowhere else to toil, and governments have no other way to function, then who actually holds the power in our society? Avoiding that dark future requires leaders with the political will to stop it.
Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up Amazon would rein in what she sees as unfair competition by preventing Amazon from selling products while hosting a website platform for other sellers. Warren also suggests splitting off Whole Foods and the online retailer Zappos, which Amazon bought in 2017 and 2009, respectively.
Fostering competition is a good start, but regulation must also prevent Amazon from bullying suppliers and partners. Lawmakers must force Amazon to pay for the externalities associated with its carbon-intensive delivery network. The company must pay a living wage to its workers, including its so-called independent contractors. It must be accountable to the legal system rather than a corporate-friendly arbitration process. It must not profit from spying on its customers.
If Amazon has caused this much upheaval today, when online shopping is still only 16 percent of retail sales, the future is limitless and grim. We have time to reverse this transfer of power and make it our world instead of Amazon’s. It’s an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.