Amazon in Buy NowLike so many others, Niagara-on-the-Lake native Emily West became a regular Amazon shopper years ago. She’s been a customer of the online service since 2000, when as a university student she started looking for books to order.
But even before that, when Amazon was only available from the U.S. unless shoppers were willing to pay expensive shipping fees, she’d use it as a “digital library.” She would access the website by a slow, dial-up connection and discover books and resources she could use for school, then track them down in local bookstores or libraries.
Years after discovering the convenience of its e-commerce service for books, she branched out as a new mom interested in baby gear and household items, as well as Amazon’s Prime Video content and its two-day free shipping.
Fast forward to 2015, when news outlets were reporting Amazon’s mistreatment of employees, the revelation caused her a “personal moment,” when she realized she should think more about the company she so quickly turned to as a consumer.
“How employees were treated really got me to think about how incrementally Amazon had gone from this novelty in the 90s, where you could buy books online and they would deliver them to your house, which seemed kind of kooky and weird and interesting, to something people depended on. It had become basically infrastructural, providing such a wide swath of products and services in a way that for a long time did not inspire comment or critique.”
That led her to begin an in-depth critique of her own, the result of which is her recently published book Buy Now: How Amazon Branded Convenience and Normalized Monopoly — a book she will discuss at an event to be held at the NOTL Public Library Tuesday.
Amazon “managed to slip below the radar and fade into the woodwork as part of what it takes to live life in the 21st century,” she says. “My book is about getting us to notice how much Amazon is part of our lives, and also how it achieved this, how it branded its own ubiquity.”
Most consumers just think of it as an online service, and see boxes show up at their door, she says.
Although reports of the treatment of warehouse workers may have caused some concern, the public still isn’t paying attention to the fact that Amazon, in addition to being the largest e-commerce company by far, is also one of the largest website service companies, has massive amounts of consumer data that it can sell for targeting advertising, and has tremendous advantages against other companies trying to compete with it.
“Its market dominance across so many sectors is still really hard for us as consumers to wrap our minds around,” she says, “and it’s something we really need to keep top of mind collectively to persuade our elected representatives to keep an eye on the incredibly rapid concentration in the tech industry that Amazon is a part of.”
Her book can help us understand that Amazon is not a fair playing-field, subsidizing losses in some areas, such as shipping things so quickly it can put competitors out of business, with profits in its other companies, such as Amazon’s Web Services, the most profitable part of Amazon, West explains. And as long as it can continue to do that, Amazon will draw investment capital its competitors will never attract.
West grew up in NOTL, went to Parliament Oak and then Sir Winston Churchill High School, was a child actor at the Shaw Festival and worked at a Queen Street restaurant during summers.
She went to McMaster University for under-grad studies before earning her PhD at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and now lives in North Hampton, MA, where she is associate professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
She tries to return home to visit regularly, although that slowed down during the pandemic, but is coming to NOTL to visit family and speak at the NOTL Public Library about Amazon, how it promoted the comfort and care of its customers, but not its workers, and became the ultimate service brand in the digital economy.
Her father, Richard West, is a much-published author and an active member of the NOTL Writers Circle, which meets at the library. He suggested Emily as a speaker.
She says she still shops on Amazon occasionally. She wanted to keep her account active as she was writing Buy Now — some of the data she collected is based on her own experiences with Amazon and its marketing and services.
One of the major arguments in Buy Now is that Amazon “is one of most trusted and loved brands,” developed through building a strong relationship between the consumer and brand through everything from an email reminder to recommendations or the way Alexa, Amazon’s interactive voice assistant, remembers you.
West says she has made an effort to cut back on ordering, but hasn’t cancelled her membership — she likes Prime Video and there are some items she can only get on Amazon.
But she does try to be “a more mindful consumer and resist Amazon techniques of making everything so easy and seamless that it never occurs to you to look elsewhere.”
And she hopes those who read Buy Now will as well.
She doesn’t think individual consumer behaviour of cutting back or boycotting Amazon will solve the problem of its disproportionate market power, although she doesn’t discourage people from being “mindful consumers.”
Should the company that delivers about 50 per cent of consumer products, she asks, be competing in that same market place?
“Shipping and being a competitor in the market place — isn’t that a conflict of interest? Shouldn’t we be asking government to look at that more closely? And isn’t half of e-commerce by one company too much?”
There will need to be “a much more organized collective network, and something that occurs through law and regulation,” she says, to deal with those issues, and she encourages consumers to be part of that effort.
“Consumers need to say yes, it’s convenient, but if there are disproportionate costs that come with this convenience, such as unacceptable treatment of workers, too great an impact on the environment, undermining competition, or too much information about consumers in one place — if these are costs consumers find to be unacceptable, then they need to say to government, ‘you need to rein this in.’”
Amazon has tried to correct its image regarding working conditions by instituting a minimum wage, at least in the U.S., she says, and touts the benefits it offers, such as health insurance, parental leave, “and even offering training programs, interestingly, for other careers.”
Amazon is desperate for warehouse workers, where turnover in the U.S. is 100 per cent a year — some positions might turn over more than once a year, says West.
While working on her book she went on some tours of their warehouses, which she says were definitely interesting, and emphasize “how magical the technology is that gets things to you quickly.”
But you never see anyone actually working for more than about a minute, “so it’s not super informative of what it’s like to work there day in and day out.”
West will be speaking at the NOTL Public Library Tuesday Aug. 16 from 2 to 3 p.m.