"It made Amazon the default."
May 6, 2019 7:30 AM   Subscribe

The making of Amazon Prime, the internet’s most successful and devastating membership program: An oral history of the subscription service that changed online shopping forever.
posted by Etrigan (65 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating and brilliant.
posted by davidmsc at 7:58 AM on May 6, 2019


I was sucked in by my need to re-watch Farscape (all four seasons streaming on Prime). But since joining, it's harder to resist ordering things when you need them, especially those awkward little things that take ages to find at a brick-and-mortar store, but can be found quickly with a search engine.
posted by jb at 7:59 AM on May 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


Really interesting. Prime is so central to Amazon now, it's hard to imagine that it was a controversial idea at first. And not even 15 years ago.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 8:10 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


Amazon as a company is really amazingly good at logistics, which is a legitimately impressive achievement on a technical level. They can very reliably get almost anything to the customer, physical or virtual, quickly and without hassle. (Assuming you’re in a geographic area they serve — but the area they serve has many of the wealthiest potential customers available, so.)

Unfortunately, part of how they achieve this is by pushing people to and past their limits. “Your margin is my opportunity”, says Bezos, and one way to do that is to reduce their own margin as far as it can go. Amazon’s warehouse workers are notoriously poorly treated, and even their tech workers are pushed incredibly hard, all the time. One person quoted in the article said they were working 110-120 hours in the weeks before Prime was launched; based on the ex-Amazonians I know in Seattle, that may have been up from a base 60-70 hours per week.

But to the customer, you’re just shopping on your phone, and you hit a button and then a couple days later the box just shows up. It’s the same dilemma as with ride sharing companies: the benefits of the system are real, and huge, but the human costs are invisible. But if we want to keep all those benefits, we’re going to need to invest in better worker protections as a society, and be prepared for the price tags to go up quite a bit.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 8:16 AM on May 6, 2019 [52 favorites]


It's wierd, though, because if you can just save up your purchases so you got $35 or more in your basket, you get free shipping anyway. You just have to wait a week, instead of two days. I mean, if I need something now, two days isn't going to do it, so I'll go outside; two days may as well be a week.

We tried the free trial of Prime and it was like... why would I pay a yearly fee for this? I dunno. I think a couple times we got something the same day in Toronto but still.

On the other hand we give Costco money every year. But I am reasonably sure we make that back in savings on bulk products.

Scratching head.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:28 AM on May 6, 2019 [6 favorites]


a device for making your enemy change his mind: I agree - my convenience is based on externalizing the costs to the workers. This is why I should cancel, and just borrow my friend's Farscape DVDs (and find a working DVD player. I'm sure I've got one somewhere...)

I worry constantly about how all of us are being sold on convenience and price, but it's really at the expense of others (and primarily to the benefit of capitalists). It's not just Amazon who is racing to the bottom, but so many goods and service providers. Yes, ordering from Amazon/Alibaba/Wish.com is cheaper - but the costs are corroding our society and leading to increased un- and under-employment. We can't run a consumer society if the majority of the population is barely scraping by and has no disposable income - the rising tide only floats all boats if it's evenly spread and not bunched up at one end of the bay.
posted by jb at 8:29 AM on May 6, 2019 [11 favorites]


On the other hand we give Costco money every year. But I am reasonably sure we make that back in savings on bulk products.

Prime gets you access to subscribe and save. All those bulk products you're getting at costco could just come to your door for a good price minus another 15%. And getting stuff in two days or often the same day or next day instead of a week is super convenient and often is needed instead of a week (i.e. I do think there are often situations where I can wait 2 days but not a week). And every time I have to go buy something at a store, figure it costs me $6 in TTC fare and the trouble of taking a toddler to a store and carrying crap back with me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm turning a blind eye to how unethical it is, i know, but there's no denying it's convenient, at least for me.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:32 AM on May 6, 2019 [9 favorites]


I struggle. On one hand, knowing the BS stuff they do to their workers, I feel a bit guilty ordering from them. Even in the article they allude to pushing their people. For a special project, I get it; ongoing, not so much. The fact that their invasive security checks happen off the clock is particularly offensive.

Likewise, when I'm ordering from them rather than going to a local shop, there is some guilt. I avoid showrooming (dealing with the local shop if I had to touch it but they didn't have my size, etc.), and definitely give business if I need services or knowledge on a regular basis.

But it's too addicting:
  • If I'm going to a Big Box store, anyway, what difference does it make?
  • Likewise, there are some things I can't find quite what I want from a local shop. So, I'm driving all over town, or hearing them say "we can order it for you." I can order it.
  • Sometimes just having it on my doorstop is appreciated. If I can put in an order on Monday for something and having it at my house on Tuesday, there is a lot to be said for simply getting something off my to-do list.
  • Getting just what I want
The convergence of these meant that recently I ordered shoe laces. Why? I couldn't get the right ones (size/style/color) from the Walgreens across the street from my office, and the local shops that sell such things (a few shoe repair shops) aren't open when I'm not at work and can get at them. I got just what I wanted for more-or-less what I'd pay elsewhere, and it was there the next day.

(Sidebar: I'm not sure I need swag from a freakin' shoe lace company.)
posted by MrGuilt at 8:38 AM on May 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


I mean, if I need something now, two days isn't going to do it, so I'll go outside; two days may as well be a week.

Same. I've now done two free trials of Prime and during the course of those trials ordered...no things. And watched no shows!

I totally see where it brings incredible benefits to people with, for example, small kids, who need predictable restocks of things at predictable times and you can just set it and forget it. But people are constantly telling me how much I will loooooove Prime, because I don't have a car, and yet I just can't wrap my head 'round it for my life.

But I mean, I use rideshares all the time. I don't especially want to, but sometime in the last 18 months all the cabs disappeared from everywhere in the city (except the most downtown parts of downtown) and...I mean, sometimes I just still need to go a place, so now I'm part of THAT problem. (RIP cabs.)

And when Amazon succeeds in killing everything un-Amazon, I suppose I'll have to use them too.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:39 AM on May 6, 2019


> ...if you can just save up your purchases so you got $35 or more in your basket, you get free shipping anyway.

There is a lot of merchandise in Amazon's catalog that only Prime members have access to. It's not only the media offerings that are restricted.

I don't really shop at Amazon itself much any more. Amazon doesn't have the price advantage it once had for items I want, and there's an ever-increasing threshold of effort necessary to ensure the item I want actually comes from Amazon (or preferred third party) rather than a knockoff or scammer. It's becoming a genuine bother, and it would kill Amazon if they hadn't managed to become the default online store for everything.

Even with the above taken into account, my Prime credit card still more or less makes the annual Prime membership worthwhile because the points are very good and I can apply the points from my Prime card towards the credit card's own balance. I can worry about how patronizing Amazon (directly or indirectly) means I help it kill off everything else, but at this point the general-merchandise retail landscape has already become the terrain of multinational megafauna; where I live there are no small retailers left, only big-box stores. The era of the fully locally-owned department store or hardware store or dry-goods store is dead and over. The specialist boutiques scurry underfoot but many of them only thrive by having learned how to work within the terms set by the big companies.
posted by at by at 8:51 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


They can very reliably get almost anything to the customer, physical or virtual, quickly and without hassle.

LOL. That is what their metrics say and not at all what my experience has been with actually getting the stuff delivered. Flex and Lasership and even the USPS all mark packages as "delivered" even when they're not. While we still had Prime we stopped using free delivery because it was so unreliable - and we're in Center City Philadelphia - and then stopped being Prime members altogether. Now that we can independently subscribe to HBO Now, Prime has little to no value to us.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:53 AM on May 6, 2019


I signed up to Prime a while ago and got some value from it, mostly on deliveries, some video and a bit of prime music. However, the main things I was buying via one day delivery were DVDs and books, and now I mostly get them through buying the download versions of those things. Sure there are films and tv included in prime video but its not too often I find what I want that is included in prime, most stuff is an additional charge, even where its older, which of course is accessible by anyone. The one day delivery often seems to fail also on those items I do want. Basically I'm pretty annoyed with myself for not cancelling this year.
posted by biffa at 8:55 AM on May 6, 2019


It's probably worth noting too that Prime's trademark "two day delivery" is well beyond bullshit, and in a more enlightened era it would be investigated for advertising fraud.
posted by at by at 8:56 AM on May 6, 2019 [15 favorites]


The very post below this is "Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth's natural life" and the correlation between the two posts is hard to ignore.
posted by numaner at 8:57 AM on May 6, 2019 [19 favorites]


It's wierd, though, because if you can just save up your purchases so you got $35 or more in your basket, you get free shipping anyway. You just have to wait a week, instead of two days.

Apparently I live near a warehouse or depot or something, because I (non-Prime user) rarely have to wait even a week, even when choosing free shipping.

I went the "try Prime free for 30 days" route one December 2 or 3 years ago when I'd waited far too long to do my Christmas shopping/shipping - that was handy. But after Christmas I cancelled it...not that that stops them from continuing to dangle offers in front of my face every chance they get.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:57 AM on May 6, 2019


I haven't bought anything from Amazon in over a year and my life is not appreciably any worse. In fact, in some ways it's better. No ethical consumption under capitalism and all that... I just... don't feel comfortable shopping there.
posted by Automocar at 9:04 AM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


It's probably worth noting too that Prime's trademark "two day delivery" is well beyond bullshit, and in a more enlightened era it would be investigated for advertising fraud.

? My stuff frequently comes next day and occasionally even same day. On occasions when I have not gotten my delivery by the expected date, I've called Amazon and they've extended my prime subscription for one month for free.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:06 AM on May 6, 2019 [11 favorites]


I recently allowed my Prime sub to expire. The price was going to double this year -- my .edu discount has run its course -- and the Prime Savings discount for preordering video games has vanished. While Prime does bump from 3 percent to 5 percent cash back on Amazon purchases on their Chase card, it would require $6,000 of spend in order to break even, which is 10x what I spent in 2018.

Also, I moved from a college town to a major metro area, where retailers are more plentiful and well stocked. Amazon will likely remain a great place to order random parts without the hassle of Aliexpress, but I'll be comparison shopping again this year for the rest I suspect.
posted by pwnguin at 9:10 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


Prime is still working for me-- the deliveries are quick at least some of the time.

That bundle $35 together for free shipping means I'm likely to spend time trying to find things to make up the total and I'm reasonably likely to buy something I otherwise wouldn't have.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:17 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


I also just let my subscription expire, and I feel... kind of better about it. I will have to go buy and lug smaller boxes of cat litter instead of wrestling the 40+ lb box up some stairs whenever it showed up. This seems like a positive change.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:25 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


sure would have been nice to see an analogous set of interviews with "fulfillment center" workers over the same period as prime - and it's associated expectations of them - ramped up

.....if they had time or energy to emit more than a sentence during the working day
posted by lalochezia at 9:35 AM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]


Besides the terrible labor and environmental impact of Prime, I have been super frustrated watching how they take advantage of my elderly dad's slower processing skills.

He's become more dependent on Amazon as he gets older - and in some ways it's been very useful to him to have heavy cat litter and food delivered instead of carrying it home from the store for example. But the cost of the membership does not 'pay for itself' given his limited annual purchases, and the interface is tricky. He's accidentally 'subscribed' himself to buying certain products and now has a stockpile of tissues that will surely last past the end of his life.
posted by latkes at 9:40 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


I mean, if I need something now, two days isn't going to do it, so I'll go outside; two days may as well be a week.

Weekends. If I order something on Wednesday, it'll be here by the weekend for whatever task. Something taking a week to arrive means I really have to wait a week and a half to get around to it.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:40 AM on May 6, 2019


it's been very useful to him to have heavy cat litter and food delivered instead of carrying it home from the store

Hell, that's one of the reasons I order cat litter! I did switch to Chewy, as they have some good shelter pet stories to tell, and are easier and generally more fun to work with.
posted by MrGuilt at 10:07 AM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


Great article

Bezos made Amazon a monster
posted by breadandbutter at 10:09 AM on May 6, 2019


at by: It's probably worth noting too that Prime's trademark "two day delivery" is well beyond bullshit, and in a more enlightened era it would be investigated for advertising fraud.

That’s a clever bit of sleight-of-hand: the shipping may be two days, but that doesn’t factor in the time it hangs around the warehouse “in processing” for reasons.
posted by dr_dank at 10:22 AM on May 6, 2019


I broke my phone case yesterday morning and ordered a new one.
It had one of those "get it today if you order in the next 2 hours and 10 minutes" messages.
It was pushed through my letterbox at 6 pm on a Sunday.

Logistically that's just some sort of wizardry.

It just feels wrong, like Tom and Jerry at 60fps.
I don't feel impressed or excited I feel ashamed and vaguely dirty.
I don't think I'll use it again.

This is not sustainable.
None of it.
posted by fullerine at 10:27 AM on May 6, 2019 [7 favorites]


Must depend on where you are. Most of the time I get two-day delivery items the next day, and even if I check the "no rush" box and get $5 in semi-useless coupons or whatever (used to be you got Kindle / Amazon Digital Services coupons, which were nice, now it's for other stuff), it still shows up the next day.

Very occasionally something will take the full two days but I'm pretty sure that's when it's an obscure enough item that it's only stocked in one warehouse at the other end of the country or something.

It's interesting how your thinking changes when you know you can have basically whatever you want show up the following day at your door. It's made me a little less hoard-y about stuff; it's easier to get rid of things that I feel like I might someday need, because I know if I do need it I can order it and have it more-or-less frictionlessly. That's wasteful and environmentally terrible, of course, but there are probably hidden carrying costs to having a ton of crap sitting around, too.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:30 AM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


I can only think of 2 occasions when something wasn't delivered to me on time from Amazon. The first time I had paid for faster shipping and they refunded the extra charge immediately and the second was a week or two ago - we needed it for the weekend and it came on a Thursday instead of Wednesday so we didn't really care. I try to shop at local shops but due to my work schedule I can only hit up most stores on the weekend when they are at their most crowded so it works much better for me to order online and have a box show up the next day.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:38 AM on May 6, 2019


I've repeatedly had issues with Amazon not delivering goods, delivering the wrong thing, listing counterfeit items, or being really late. I live in a major city, so it's not like they don't have plenty of infrastructure already in place.

How many people in this thread would be willing to shop from a competitor that costs 10% more but a) pays all of their employees a living wage/benifits, and b) sources from local brick-and-mortar first?
posted by cirgue at 10:42 AM on May 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


"How many people in this thread would be willing to shop from a competitor that costs 10% more but a) pays all of their employees a living wage/benefits, and b) sources from local brick-and-mortar first?"

I don't even get a living wage or benefits, never have. I would not pay 10% more to shop at the slightly less-unethical business. I also don't think it should be on me as an individual to shoulder the ethical burden here, if we want businesses to behave ethically our only option is to legislate them to do so.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:50 AM on May 6, 2019 [20 favorites]


For instance, there's really depressing news that the extra money that went to certified Fair Trade tea for wages got fee'd away from the workers. (Which is not surprising given the original problem, of total dependence of workers on the plantations.)

It's possible that really stringent enforced labor standards would improve Amazon's market position, because they are damn good at optimizing for whatever they choose to optimize for. They might be better at logistics+laborrights than anyone else. I would be okay with that. More doorbelling...
posted by clew at 10:53 AM on May 6, 2019


How it works for me.
posted by Segundus at 10:54 AM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]


I would pay 10% more for a competitor that treated its employees better. I don't think that 10% more would cover sourcing from local stores, though, since that would require a big development in their logistics.

But you know, I'm not sure how many people would pay more, anyway. I've often had conversations about price-shopping with my mom because lower prices are more important to her than me. It doesn't have to do with how well-off we are - she has more money than I do. She seems to think that paying more is wasteful unless there's a good reason, and her bar for a good reason is higher than mine.

So she goes to the less expensive store with crappier produce and complains about the produce, but doesn't want to go to the more expensive store because ... that's wasting money. She's not even a coupon clipper or anything, it's just how she was taught by her parents, I think. I think there are a lot of people who were raised to think this way.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:03 AM on May 6, 2019 [7 favorites]


Just starting in on this, and this immediately makes me scared for what happens inside Amazon today:

Back then there wasn’t a blind faith that every Jeff idea was going to be a home run

There never should be that blind faith, in any one, or their ideas. Gah.
posted by nubs at 11:04 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


I deliberately pay more, by ordering books through my neighborhood bookstore. Doing this makes me feel like I'm minutely helping the store, and I like shooting the shit with the owner. That said, it also brings home the complete futility of doing things like this as a means to move the needle in any real way. As with so many things discussed here, this is going to take regulation and structural rearrangements, not a handful of consumers opting out occasionally.
posted by salt grass at 11:18 AM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


> As with so many things discussed here, this is going to take regulation and structural rearrangements, not a handful of consumers opting out occasionally.

Just so.

And since we're recounting Amazon stories here - I was an Amazon shopper back when it was only books, then moved out of the US for a while, and I've been on the Prime train since oh 2009 or so. Packages usually take the 2 full days to my small town, No-Rush sits at the warehouse until 2 days before the deadline, but packages are rarely late and I can't recall an issue with missing packages.

Package contents, on the other hand - an angry worker once packed a baking tray in a giant cardboard box with one solitary airbag, so that all I got was a box-full of shards instead of an urgent birthday gift...
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:29 AM on May 6, 2019


The very post below this is "Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth's natural life" and the correlation between the two posts is hard to ignore.

I've always wondered what the ecological costs and benefits are with applying better logistics to the problem of how to move things around.

For instance, I don't need to hop in my car to buy something from the store (e.g., dog food) so I'm not sitting in traffic. A last-mile shipper goes around town to delivers items (including mine).

It seems like one delivery van doing the work of N cars (and the reduced traffic) would be a net benefit to the environment.

On the other hand, if people are buying more stuff, then even with fewer car trips, that could offset or cancel out that benefit. Maybe even tip the scale the other way.

Prime may be bad in a lot of ways, but whether we buy stuff through Prime, or Costco, etc. we're still buying stuff that needs to be moved from point A to point B. There's a lot that a centralized, logistically-efficient shipper can potentially do to reduce the environmental overhead in moving things around.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:31 AM on May 6, 2019 [6 favorites]


My problem with Amazon is two-pronged: Fakes and how they do delivery.

Fakes, particularly with electronics, seem to be on the rise. I've gotten burned by several in the past couple of years, especially as Amazon moves to consolidate/pool/commingle/whatever various sellers' inventory. I flatly refuse to buy so-called commodity electronics (SD cards, chargers, USB sticks, most cables) from anywhere that doesn't let me see it first and let me bring it back there if something goes wrong. And what is faked or just plain ripped off is getting worse. Nintendo Switch game repackage/return or putting in a swapped game card or faking the packaging of the branded SD cards is rampant after scammers realized that the generic fakes were getting flooded by more fakes.

How they do delivery is another big one. Their push to "Amazon Logistics," which where I live (their hometown) seems to be code for "take the shittiest Uber drivers who all park in bus lanes with their hazards on and also have them deliver boxes and groceries," is terrible. I've gotten the wrong box, no box, a destroyed box, and just the item itself with a shipping label (a "gift-style" razor kit, that didn't come in its own box) in the past. That, of course, assumes the "Logistics" driver even finds where I live (in a six-story apartment building with the name of the place in 512pt font and an office staffed seven days a week).

So, sure, in the grand scheme of things, my walking three blocks to Target or QFC or taking the bus to Costco or even buying a book at Barnes and Noble—all of these being big-box retail chains instead of the small corner stores that Wal-Mart, Amazon, and property zoning have done a lot to undermine—might not mean that much and I'm still paying money to Large Retail Conglomerate™ but at least the employees who work there are actual employees who are covered by my city's wage, scheduling, and worker protection ordinances (and, in the case of QFC, are also unionized) and I know for certain that the sales tax I pay is going to my city and there were no added car trips for it because I either walked or took transit. So, I'll take it.
posted by fireoyster at 11:33 AM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


I'm on my roommate's household subscription to Prime...

...still, eight years after moving out.

The value proposition to the customer, when you start factoring in stuff like this, is pretty spectacular really. How many Prime customers actually pay anything? At least with Netflix and Hulu and, I don't know, PlayStation Plus, you know it doesn't cost them anything (or hardly anything) more to have more people on one subscription. It's incredible to me to have a company like Amazon pretending that physical purchases work the same way as the transfer of bits and bytes. No wonder they wanted to get onboard the digital subscription services train.

I feel the same way about it that I do about $1.00 value menu cheeseburgers, HOW can it only cost $1 to raise and a slaughter a cow and process and ship the meat and bake and ship the bread and pay for the burger to be assembled and warmed up? With pickles and condiments? Logically, I know there are efficiencies of scale and that a lot of people must be overpaying in other areas to make the numbers work out, but it still doesn't seem right.
posted by subdee at 11:44 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


So my kid got some birthday money and tagged along with me on my weekly Target run to find a game for her Switch.

She picked out a title she wanted and when I asked the employee to get it from the locked case he brought it out, then pulled out his cellphone. I thought maybe he was going to scan it with some employee app to mark the inventory or something.

Instead, he pulled up Google and asked for the price of the cart on Amazon. It was $15 cheaper. He looks at my kid and says "Sorry, I have to charge you $21 for this." Without even asking.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:10 PM on May 6, 2019


Joe: I don't get it, probably because I don't know how much these games are supposed to cost. Did he price-match without being asked and charge the Amazon price? I can't imagine the game was $6 on amazon, right?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:16 PM on May 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


If only, that's the impression I got because I've experienced that. I bought one of Anker's external batteries for my Switch and the Electronics associate checked Best Buy (downstairs from my Target) and Amazon before knocking $17.99 off the price because Best Buy had it on sale. I didn't even know; I just was buying from Target because I was already there, I saw the battery, and I have a REDcard.
posted by fireoyster at 12:18 PM on May 6, 2019


Did he price-match without being asked and charge the Amazon price? I can't imagine the game was $6 on amazon, right?

Yes, he matched the Amazon price without blinking. To be honest I didn't even know Target matched but now I do. The cart was $39.99 and he charged me $20.99 or whatever the Amazon price was.

Now, it could have also been because he saw my little girl looking up at him holding two $20 bills in her hand, but I'd like to think it was a nice way of advertising the matching policy.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:23 PM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


I was an independent merchant selling stuff on Amazon 15 years ago. Back then, indie merchants mostly self-shipped, so I was dropping off fifty to one hundred flat-rate envelopes a day at the post office. Then they turned on Prime, and I couldn’t sell my shit (fine French soaps, primarily) anymore unless I dropped my ship-charges to free and repriced the merch accordingly, which I did - fortunately, Amazon had not *yet* sniped my wholesaler and they were only too happy to have me selling their product *above* MSRP (This is also before wholesale-retail commerce rules changed to allow wholesalers to enforce a manufacturer-required minimum resale price).

It went... OK. Sales growth actually did increase a little bit under that business model. Then they turned on Fulfilment By Amazon, FBA, in which indie merchants ship their merch to Amazon fulfillment centers and your products enter the Amazon logistics stream. It *dramatically* increases the Amazon skim, from something like 15% to something just over 30%, which can make it tough to fit the standard retail markup of 50% into the customer-facing price. Say my soap cost me $3.50 and MSRP was $7.00. Let’s assume as a unique seller I was able to get $10 on Amazon with free shipping. At first I was able to hold steady at $10 under FBA shipping Prime orders for me but within like two months, my order volume began doubling on a monthly basis, so I went from that 100 orders a day to 200 to 400 and then to 800 and so on. My soaps became the top selling items in-category and I had to scramble to find capital to meet the buyer demand. It was dizzying and shocking and exciting and terrifying.

But then other sellers began sourcing the soaps from my wholesaler and that drove everybody’s prices down to exact margin, so wholesale plus Amazon’s cut plus like a dime. so instead of making $3.50 a bar I was making ten cents and maxing out a fistful of credit cards to pay the wholesaler.

Then Amazon sniped my wholesaler and began selling the product, colonizing my listings and using my images and marketing material. I was stuck with 40 grand in unsaleable soap. I pulled the inventory from FBA and they shipped it back to me in enormous cardboard boxes with no padding that weighed on the order of 300 pounds. The boxes split in shipping as they were dropped by shippers along the way. Inventory came out in transit. The soap that made it back to me was uniformly damaged, thousands of bars of soap chipped and scuffed. The method of shipping they had employed was specifically interdicted in the FBA returns process terms of service.

I filed a damage claim with FBA customer service. They insisted they would honor the claim only if I documented each individual bar of soap’s damage and filed a separate claim for each one. So for three weeks, I took a picture of each bar of soap all day long and filed a separate claim for each unit. The total claim under FBA returns damages policy would have been about $20,000. They in turn refused to honor the claims and issued a lump sum of about $1500.

I fucking hate Amazon with the fire of a thousand suns. They day they are broken up will be a happy, happy day in my heart.
posted by mwhybark at 12:27 PM on May 6, 2019 [68 favorites]


Package contents, on the other hand - an angry worker once packed a baking tray in a giant cardboard box with one solitary airbag, so that all I got was a box-full of shards instead of an urgent birthday gift...

Angry? It's possible they were just busy.
posted by Automocar at 12:28 PM on May 6, 2019


I would welcome the idea of “Amazon Offset Credits” to Labor or green activism, while I wait for / figure out how to get stuff I want without going through Amazon.

Ideas welcome :)
posted by gregglind at 12:32 PM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


I totally see where it brings incredible benefits to people with, for example, small kids, who need predictable restocks of things at predictable times and you can just set it and forget it.

That's how they got me in 2010. I signed up for what was then called Amazon Mom -- free Prime for a year and a 20% discount on diapers and some other baby-centric goods. Given a choice between trying to bundle a high-needs newborn into a car so I could go get diapers and hunt down rechargeable portable nightlights or pressing one-click ordering, I went for the Prime and the attendant Subscribe and Save.

Later, Prime made holiday shopping easier. I used Subscribe And Save to set up monthly deliveries of diapers to my local domestic violence shelter. I bought children's books in bulk so I had a steady supply of birthday party gifts on hand. My husband loves jellybeans so I started one-click ordering him three-pound bags as surprise just-because gifts. I stopped dealing with the crowded and unpleasant local drugstores and Costco and just ordered our family's toiletries via Amazon Prime.

Then Amazon made the mistake of telling me how much money I could have saved in 2018 if I had just used their credit card and gotten even more discounts and I thought, "Holy shit, I spend way too much money there and I'm entirely too used to not planning ahead anymore."

Our family resolution for 2019 was "REDUCE." Reduce spending, reduce our consumption, reduce our food waste, reduce our media binging.

Instead of running the household details through Prime -- "Oh, I'm out of my French no-rinse detergent? Click!" -- we're now ordering once a month. Every impulse purchase or household "need" gets chucked in the basket and once a month, we review to see if we still need those things.

(Spoiler alert: We mostly do not.)

Amazon seems to have gotten really aggressive in my inbox in response. I wonder if they'll stop making it so easy for people to see and understand how much money they spend on the site.
posted by sobell at 12:43 PM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


This is not sustainable.
None of it.


An awful lot of it is predicated entirely on artificially deflated prices from China. I can't imagine tariffs are going to *help* the Bezos-sphere.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:03 PM on May 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


jb: "...the majority of the population is barely scraping by..." WTF?
posted by davidmsc at 1:05 PM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


But let's not kid ourselves that the local mom-and-pop store is some kind of bastion of employment rights, standing up for the workers in the face of the Evil Amazon.

There is a lot of information about the multiplier effect of buying from local businesses so that is my default. I look up books on Amazon and then ask a nearby independent to order it for me. These are usually gifts, often for children. and generally a similar or lower price. My problem is that there aren't many actual local businesses. A hardware store, a regional grocery chain and Ocean State Job Lot are about it but even shopping at these means that wages are going to local residents.
posted by Botanizer at 1:09 PM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


I don’t order from Amazon anymore not only because of their (lack of) ethics, but because they don’t package things as well as they used to twenty years ago and i have had shipping damage on most of the (few) orders i’ve done in the last decade.

Also, the counterfeit problem with stock being mingled at their warehouse caused me to order from Walmart for the first time. I needed a new Braun electric razor, an over $100 item. There are tons of little vendors selling them via Amazon’s warehouse system.

Real Braun razors are made in Germany. If you go to Aliexpress/Alibaba you will find many listings (including wholesale prices) for them. I find it hard to believe that Chinese sellers are buying them from Braun and then reselling them from China at those prices to sellers in North America. So, what are the chances that at least some Amazon merchants are selling counterfeits? Almost certain, i think.

I ended up buying from Walmart (which i have always boycotted) because none of the other big chain stores (Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, etc.) would either ship to me at a reasonable price or even at all, due to the fact that the li-ion battery in the razors meant that they had to use an express mail carrier instead of USPS because commercial shipment of those batteries can’t go via air mail on regular commercial airplanes, which is how mail works in Alaska. Walmart only charged me about $2 for being in Alaska while shipping via FedEx. It literally was the only place i could safely order from without getting fleeced by the express mail companies.

Note that there were no local sellers that had the model i wanted or are set up to do special orders. The old locally-owned drugstore / housewares store that could have done that went out of business because of Amazon and the big box stores.
posted by D.C. at 1:12 PM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


B'lieve the "if" in that quote is serving as a rhetorical device, davidmsc - ". . . race to the bottom . . . can't do X IF Y . . . "
posted by aspersioncast at 1:13 PM on May 6, 2019


... and oh yeah, my current new gig as a USPS CCA (in addition to being the reason for my drop in posting here of late) entails mandatory low-man-on-the-um-not-totem-pole-but-you-know-what-I-mean Sunday shifts delivering Amazon packages all day. The irony!
posted by mwhybark at 1:41 PM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


Amazon seems to be into replacing all parts of an economy simultaneously.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:59 PM on May 6, 2019


internally, they often duplicate business functions in different units and the units compete against each other. In addition to UPS and USPS shipping (which has also become commingled - look at the next small-bag or box shipment you get from Amazon, and note that the shipment may have both a UPS and a USPS shipping number), Amazon uses DHL, FedEx, and at *least* three internal or wholly-owned subsidiary shippers - ReadyPost I think is one; the gig economy delivery services which may involve Amazon drives using their own vehicle or sometimes Amazon-provided or rented vans; Amazon-full-time drivers usually driving Amazon livery Mercedes Sprinter vans; and almost certainly others in addition to the tinkering they do with delivery models such as Amazon drop-off points and Amazon lockers. It really is impressive, even if I have good reason to be a frowny man about the company.
posted by mwhybark at 3:06 PM on May 6, 2019


B'lieve the "if" in that quote is serving as a rhetorical device, davidmsc - ". . . race to the bottom . . . can't do X IF Y . . . "

Rhetorical device - and prediction. I studied economic history. Economic growth relies on the purchasing power of the average person. Real wages have been flatlining in most developed countries. Spending in the 2000s especially relied on increases in consumer debt - and (as the 2008 crashed showed) this is not sustainable.

There are already so many people in the developed world who are "barely getting by" - or not getting by at all (thus bankruptcies, debt and/or homelessness). Walmart workers qualify for welfare (which is, of course, a government subsidy to Walmart). As more and more of us work for low-wage employers, we will also not be getting by. Or, as the ever-so-socialist Forbes magazine points out, governments will end up having to make up the shortfall.

And in the meantime, you get an (even bigger) demand crisis. It's economic history 101. (Or maybe 201).
posted by jb at 4:08 PM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yes, ordering from Amazon/Alibaba/Wish.com is cheaper - but the costs are corroding our society and leading to increased un- and under-employment.

Curiously, Amazon is criticized for over-employment.

I'm just not buying much of the unethical charges lobbed against Amazon regarding employment. If their practices are unethical, you should be cheering them losing their jobs. Which is what plenty of people here seem to not only advocate, but pat themselves on the back for the effort. How much this would actually help the Amazon worker is up for question, since it's already within their power to simply quit if they see fit. But nobody seems really interested in the welfare of Amazon workers, so much as the welfare of their own sensibilities. If you can convince yourself that you're doing an Amazon worker a favor by getting their hours cut, or even eliminated entirely, you're doing the dismal science its reputation well.

Walmart workers qualify for welfare (which is, of course, a government subsidy to Walmart).

This is often quoted as some kind of searing indictment of Walmart, but from my view, it's a pretty good example of the system working. It's also an example of how the idea of a UBI working, except instead of being universal, it's going to people who need it most. Horrible, I know.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:32 PM on May 6, 2019


Amazon is fucking terrifying. Bezos is monomaniacal in his quest to get a cut of every thing sold every where. I don't buy from them because there's always another choice, slightly less convenient perhaps, but it's money going somewhere besides the pocket of an asshole with a mechanical dog.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:12 PM on May 6, 2019


We canceled our Prime membership last year. We had been getting it through my wife’s .edu at the reduced rate, but that was expiring and Amazon also was upping the price to $120 per year. We looked at each other and asked if we really got $120 per year worth of service out of it... and no, no we don’t. The side benefit to canceling was that we order a lot less from them now, pretty much the odd thing that we have trouble finding elsewhere. We’ve noticed that we’re not paying appreciably more than we were before, since Amazon has forced everyone to compete, but we still try to shop local when we can even if it costs more. (Sister lives out in a rural area, and she says Amazon is a game changer out there.)

But a little reminder for those of you that are shopping Amazon - make sure you buy everything you can via Amazon Smile and pick a charity to get a cut of your sales. It’s not a ton of money but it adds up, and the organization you choose will appreciate getting an unexpected check from Amazon.
posted by azpenguin at 10:18 PM on May 6, 2019


Under-employment is when a person has work, but not enough work, e.g. part-time hours when they want full, or employment at a lower wage than their skills/experience would suggest. Under-employment is the hidden problem of "good job numbers": people are employed, but not with enough hours/money to support themselves and their families.
posted by jb at 6:04 AM on May 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


I never voted for it.
posted by filtergik at 6:59 AM on May 7, 2019


If their practices are unethical, you should be cheering them losing their jobs.
That doesn't actually follow. If your first "their" is Amazon and your second "their" is Amazon's employees, it's perfectly reasonable to criticize their1's practices up to and including massive layoffs of their2, even if the their2 jobs are unattractive because of their1's practices. Also their2 comprises a shitload more people whose situations are a lot more financially precarious.

it's already within their power to simply quit if they see fit.
Oh, that old Neoliberal chestnut. Anyone who's lived paycheck-to-paycheck or in a one-employer town with "right-to-work" law knows the other side of this one pretty well.

If you can convince yourself that you're doing an Amazon worker a favor by getting their hours cut
We're not cutting their hours, their employer is.

There are a lot of comments above about overworking employees, but Amazon and Wal Mart both still specifically underemploy with the express target of not having to treat their lower-level staff as full-time employees. It's cheaper and easier for them to employ more people for fewer hours each - cheaper because of PTE exemptions, easier because among many things it's harder to fire FTEs.

"Getting their hours cut" is not our goal, the goal is "making megacorps pay their lower-tier employees a living wage and give them health care." If health care weren't still so heavily tied to employment, and the US had an actual social safety net, and the system weren't explicitly set up to favor exploitation of the poor in many states, we wouldn't have this conversation every couple months.

it's a pretty good example of the system working.
It's a pretty good example of "public risk, private profit."

This whole sentiment sounds awfully similar to a specific speech by either Thatcher or her employment secretary. I'll try to dig it up.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:25 AM on May 7, 2019 [6 favorites]




Amazon has, for the last ten years running, hopefully asked and insisted that I must be a student and would I just sign up for Student Prime already. To the point where I get a full-size splash screen interposed between my shipping info and payment info where the 'no, don't sign me up' is in 8-pt font in the bottom corner.

I fit lots of student parameters (frequently access from a .edu network, have a .edu email in my possession though not Amazon's, look up things like textbooks on the regular) but am most emphatically not a student. Amusingly, it would be easier to tell them that I am than to keep insisting that I am not.
posted by librarylis at 8:05 PM on May 7, 2019


« Older Human society under urgent threat from loss of...   |   sights and sounds of a soaked city Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments