Perhaps we were different long ago. Perhaps we used to revere capitalists who found ways for consumers to save money. They trimmed inefficiencies from the system. Often, we believe they did so by creating jobs and vibrant economies — because we grew up in the aftermath of a major upheaval like the industrial revolution, when all the laws and social norms had largely been settled.
Now, it seems that companies deliver efficiencies on the backs of towns and people — low wages and long hours for the people, devastated town centers and local economies for the towns.
According the the emerging narrative, instead of businesses building up economies and towns in the ways they used to, they’re seemingly tearing them apart. Major business initiatives and construction projects like data centers take only 50 people to run rather than 500 or 5,000, a scale that makes functioning local economies impossible. Hub-and-spoke systems flatten organizations and distribute them broadly, spreading workers far and wide. Work-from-home and other distributed office arrangements scatter workers and families inconsistently.
These forces have led to activism against fast-growing companies capable of leveraging information systems and global systems in ways their competitors have a hard time matching — Wal-Mart, Google, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Apple immediately come to mind.
One of the more recent additions to this list of fear and derision is the once-beloved Amazon.com, the little bookselling underdog that has become an Internet behemoth over the last decade. Now, with bookstores crumbling, the reactionaries are mounting a PR campaign to take back the past, with the New York Times’ art department contributing this:
The subject of this backlash is Amazon’s latest price-busting strategy — use their Price Check scanning app in a retail store, buy the item(s) at Amazon, and get $5 off your next purchase. Local retailers suddenly became very nervous, as they were going into battle with an army while Amazon was going into battle with an air force. The attack from above seemed unfair.
While any retailer protesting competition strikes me as indefensible (even with the Amazon tax controversies in effect), the complaint by Richard Russo in the New York Times is particularly strange. Russo notes early that Amazon excluded books from the price war, but then goes on to interview independent bookstore owners, famous authors, and the Authors Guild, justifying his focus by noting that bookstores sell other things (DVDs, CDs, novelties) that Amazon included in its retail assault. So it’s OK for bookstores to attack music and movie stores, but not for an online store to attack bricks and mortar? As you can see, the logic is faulty at multiple levels.
While the whining from publishers and their defenders was quick and constant, the response was equally quick and clear, as covered on O’Reilly Radar:
PaidContent ran a piece entitled, “Stop Freaking Out About Amazon’s Price Check App,” which reminded people of a few key components of the current retail environment:
- Pricing comparison apps aren’t anything new, for Amazon or others. I’d add to this reminder that the potential for apps like these was imagined more than a decade ago, and was intended to include not only relationships with single retailers but also local options, like the store down the street. This is a clue to real-world retailers about how to handle the current and future retail environment — compete!
- Big-box retailers are most at-risk because they’re selling commodities at competitive prices. As the author writes, “. . . can you really say in your heart that you are upset that someone might buy their Blu-Ray player on Amazon instead of at Best Buy?”
Forbes is, surprisingly, damning but realistic (I’d expect them to praise brazen capitalism a bit more cheerfully), entitling their article, “Amazon’s Price Check May Be Evil But It’s the Future.” The article also smartly notes that the controversy is probably driving wider adoption of the Amazon app, inadvertently playing into Amazon’s strategy. After all, who is going to boycott a free app that gives you $5 for using it? Amazon couldn’t have purchased better advertising.
But back to the misplaced publisher/local bookstore concerns, which are addressed head-on in a Slate piece entitled, “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” with the subtitle, “Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.” The author, Farhad Manjoo, returns us to the Richard Russo piece in the New York Times, writing:
Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.” . . . That’s simply bogus. . . . no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.
Manjoo’s piece is full of great insights — local bookstores aren’t “local” by and large; low prices support buying and reading books, but local booksellers have higher prices which diminish book buying and by extension reading; and since when did your local bookstore provide publishing services for your latest novel or potboiler?
The Price Check app Amazon has rolled out has little to do with books or publishing, but everything to do with the future of retailing. Yet the misplaced fear and loathing emanating from authors, publishers, and their apologists only shows how reactionary and ossified our industry remains — we apparently don’t want to sell more books at lower prices to readers who are hungry to become readers again in large numbers.
Instead of Price Check, Amazon should have rolled out an app named Reality Check.