Monday, December 12, 2011

Amazon's Latest News Cycle: Grinches or Goofs?

Does Amazon have any Public Relations people on staff? I mean... at all? Maybe some advisors of some sort that play the Jeff Goldblum role and say "Sure you can do that, but should you?"

If they do have such people, are they ever allowed to attend meetings? And if so, why don't they ever say "You know this is going to make us look like the Grinch that stole Christmas, right?"

Sometimes it seems like Amazon is a machine purpose-built for creating internet rage. They remotely deleted copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, they delisted LGBT titles or recategorized them or... something, they got in a very public spat with MacMillan that made all of us wish they'd fight in private like civilised people, and now... now they're paying you not to shop with mom & pop.

Well... sort of.

Here's what happened: Amazon created a "Price-check App" that offers you a discount (up to $5.00) if you'll scan an item at a local store and then leave empty-handed to buy it from them. Best Buy or Mom's Mop Store, it doesn't matter. Amazon will then use the prices uploaded by their users to create their own pricing model.

Books, for the record, are exempt from the promotion, but that didn't win them any friends at the American Bookseller's Association. In an open letter, the CEO of the ABA, Oren Teicher, called it: "the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries."


That's a great sound bite and this pissed me off when I heard about it too. But... Here's a free tip for the internet rage machine: there's no smoky boardroom where men in dark suits twirl luxurious mustaches while they contemplate the demise of Mom & Pop. For one thing, smoking in the workplace is illegal in Seattle (mustaches, however, are perfectly legal). At this point, Mom & Pop aren't even on Amazon's radar; they're collateral damage as Amazon wages war against larger foes.

Also, for what it's worth, I suspect that most Americans are going to use this to match Amazon pricing against Best Buy and Walmart as opposed to pricebusting Mom's Rutabega Emporium. Call me an optimist, but most people really aren't generally going to screw over someone they can name, while pitting faceless corporations against one another is practically a national pastime.

That, and most of the mom & pop shops I frequent would toss you out on your ear if they caught you doing that in their store.

That being said, a physical store is a physically present in your community and as Teicher rightly noted, that means that physical stores pay taxes (at least theoretically). Which is something Amazon has been allergic to in the recent past.

Don't get me wrong (and getting back to books for a minute) Amazon and the large bookstore chains really did/do help the publishing industry thrive. Amazon's a big player in the retail sector of the US economy overall, and by that measure, helps the country thrive. But the independent, local retailers (such as bookstores) help make a community thrive. They embody the culture of their cities, and as Teicher noted, they keep the roads paved and the schools running as well.

Not every city or town has - or ever had - a thriving independent bookstore. Thanks to the closures of the independents and the Borders stores, I now have to drive almost an hour to reach a bookstore. I'm over two and a half hours from the nearest independent bookstore. But I'm not anti-Amazon; if I told you I hop in a car everytime I need a book, I'd be lying.

Are local stores (book and otherwise) more expensive? Yes. And this is a hard sell in tough economic times. Believe me, I know there are genuine economic reasons to shop the chain stores or online for your books. There are equally good reasons why the physical booksellers in your community cannot, CANNOT compete on price with Amazon.

I cannot count the number of hours I and fellow booksellers spent helping someone figure out what book they wanted only to have them put it down and say "Thanks, I'll go order it from Amazon." Our expertise, Amazon's sale.

Every time you use any "brick & mortar" store, this way, you are casting a vote against its continued existence. You are voting against the jobs of the employees who helped you, against your community. And that's your choice.

For what it's worth, I think Amazon is more goof than Grinch in this thing. Again. The internet tempest this raised will net yet another sheepish round of excuses just like all the others have. And all the internet pundits will retreat to their burrows to await the next appearance of the hashtag #AmazonFail, signaling the arrival of spring. Meanwhile, this sort of thing goes on in the real world all the time, unobserved and uncommented upon because most big retailers have the PR savvy to do it quietly.

Those mysterious 'market forces' that everyone talks about on TV? That's us. Every dollar you spend is a vote that you cast in a vast and secret election. The result is the world you see around you. The Ghost of Christmas Retail doesn't pick who wins or loses in America, you do.

Don't know your local Indie bookseller? Find them online using this handy tool provided by IndieBound.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).