A few weeks ago, I was standing in the vitamin aisle of my local pharmacy, struggling to locate a specific bottle of pills that my doctor had recommended. It was seemingly nowhere to be found. And based on my experience at this particular store, I knew that even if I was able to track down an employee for help, I wasn’t likely to receive much in the way of assistance.
Then, a solution to my dilemma suddenly dawned on me: Amazon AMZN, -3.28% ! I looked up said bottle, found it within almost no time and ordered it. By the next day, it had arrived. And it probably cost me a couple of dollars less than what I would have spent at the pharmacy – if I had ever located it there.
Of course, you don’t need to be in search of a hard-to-find item to appreciate the wonders of the online retail giant that Jeff Bezos founded from his garage in 1994. Millions of us are likely to be on the site today and tomorrow for Amazon’s annual Prime Day event, a sales extravaganza that one bargain-mad colleague likened to “basically my Super Bowl.” To take advantage of the deals, you’ll naturally have to be an Amazon Prime member, which carries an annual fee of $139. But it’s not like that’s a small number of folks: Amazon says there are now more than 200 million such members worldwide.
“At this point, Amazon isn’t just a company. It’s an institution woven into the fabric of our lives.”
I’ve been one of those Prime people for years — if nothing else, for the free two-day shipping it offers. But even before I signed on for Prime, I ordered plenty from Amazon. My purchases over the past decade have ranged from a super-hot horseradish to a pair of armrest slipcovers to a folding exercise bike. Actually, I ordered the three items I just mentioned during the first couple of months of the pandemic, when Amazon became a kind of lifeline given the health risks of shopping in person. But if I go back in time, I find countless purchases for books (Amazon’s original specialty), clothes and margarita mix (there’s a brand I like that I often can’t find at the supermarket).
And yet, I know there are plenty of people, including some of my friends and relatives, who boycott Amazon. They point to the oft-cited criticisms of the company, such as the treatment of its workers (in 2019, the company’s employees were injured on the job far more than the national average in the warehousing and storage sector) to the broader notion that online retailers hurt the brick-and-mortar stores that have been a traditional bedrock of our communities.
Criticizing Amazon has become almost a sport unto itself. There are books devoted to the subject, such as Alex MacGillis’ “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America” (ironically, I purchased my copy of it on Amazon). Heck, there’s even a whole Wikipedia page detailing the criticisms.
I get the issues that many people have. And it’s not like Amazon doesn’t recognize them, either: The company has acknowledged the injury situation, for example, but has also pledged to cut incidents in half by 2025, according to The Wall Street Journal.
When I reached out to Amazon for this column and cited the various criticisms made of the company, Amazon responded with a statement that, among other things, said it works “hard to be a good neighbor…with communities across the country” and that it creates “good jobs with competitive pay and benefits, including health care from the first day, up to 20 weeks paid parental leave, and full college tuition.” Amazon also cited some of its philanthropic initiatives, including its Amazon Housing Equity Fund, a $2 billion program to build or preserve affordable homes.
All of this is what you expect from a giant corporation trying to defend itself. I’m not going to get into the weeds about the particular criticisms and whether Amazon makes a successful case for itself or not. But I will say that people vote with their wallets. And they’re reelecting Amazon on a daily, if not hourly, basis with all their purchases.
“People vote with their wallets. And they’re reelecting Amazon on a daily, if not hourly, basis with all their purchases.”
Ultimately, Amazon is about convenience combined with competitive pricing — a formula that’s hard to beat. It launched the era of online retailing, and it has mastered the art of it to this day. When I hear people bemoan the fates of all those brick-and-mortar stores, I admit to thinking to myself, “OK, but do you still want your mail delivered by the Pony Express?” Or, “Do you still want to do your shopping at ye olde general store?”
The point is that we evolve as a society and new forms of commerce and communication take over. Yes, there are prices to be paid for that. I admit to missing some of the brick-and-mortar stores and chains that were part of my youth — I’m 58 years old, and remember spending practically entire days in neighborhood bookshops long gone. For that matter, I don’t condone bad behavior by large multinational companies; though, like I said, I’ll let others debate some of the specifics regarding Amazon.
But let’s face it: At this point, Amazon isn’t just a company. It’s an institution woven into the fabric of our lives — and for good reason, I’d argue. I don’t care about shopping on Prime Day, though I gather there are indeed a few deals to be had. Mostly, I just increasingly rely on Amazon to make my life easier by selling me any number of things I need on a daily basis, including household staples (yes, you can buy toilet paper on Amazon — the company even sells its own brand). And that’s to say nothing of the services the company offers, including its Prime Video streaming (you can thank Amazon for the truly marvelous — and Emmy-winning — “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” series, for example).
Could someone come along and invent a better version of Amazon, one that might not be as widely criticized? Perhaps, but that’s probably years, if not centuries, down the road. In the meanwhile, we have the Amazon that we have. Now, let me see if I’m out of toilet paper…