There are many, many reasons to want to avoid making purchases from Amazon. The company is owned by an anti-union zealot, is largely responsible for the death of brick and mortar stores by selling products at a loss to undercut them, abuses its white-collar employees while outsourcing its blue-collar ones to unaccountable subcontractors, evades collecting sales taxes on its third-party vendors, and has built unprecedented secret databases on you and your shopping habits. (It’s unclear as yet how much Amazon’s just-announced $15-an-hour minimum wage will ease the pain of toiling in its warehouses.)
And that's without even getting into Bezos's attempts to extort several billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies from whichever city he picks to host his new second headquarters — or in cloying Amazon corporate-speak, "HQ2" — on top of the more than $1 billion in subsidies it's already raked in from local governments.
On the other hand, there are lots of reasons why we continue to select one-click payment. Amazon Prime is a huge lure, bundling free shipping and free TV and movies and music for just $119 a year, all without the hassle of having to comparison-shop your way across the internet or risk of accidentally ordering your underwear from a Chinese scam operator. It's why nearly half of online shoppers don't even bother to use a search engine, but just type their desires directly into Amazon. (Dear reader, it has happened to me.)
This is, of course, entirely intentional. The whole reason Amazon offers you a portal to nearly everything is so that you'll keep using them as one-stop shopping for, well, nearly everything. (Amazon's most profitable division is its Amazon Web Services cloud storage, which services both Netflix and the CIA.) The company's adoption of the slogan "Amazon.com, and you're done" seemed like a sly joke in 2001; now it feels more like a "To Serve Man"-esque warning.
In past times, this kind of monolithic control of a market — or of society itself — was considered an unacceptable monopoly, and subjected to the big stick of Teddy Roosevelt. But in the absence of a trust-buster in the White House, is there anything that mere mortals can do to reduce Amazon's sway over our lives and pocketbooks?
Earlier this year, Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of the book Big-Box Swindle, wrote an article for The Nation detailing why we should be concerned about this state of affairs. And the reader response, she says, was eye-opening.
"It's definitely shifted," she says of attitudes toward our new Amazon overlords. "People are much more troubled by Amazon's power than they were even a couple of years ago. For a long time, Amazon grew somewhat invisibly; it gained a lot of ground without much notice or criticism." While big-box stores like Walmart and Target have long sparked protests against allowing corporate domination of the retail world, Amazon hadn't generated such public ire.
That started to change, she says, with the company's 2017 purchase of Whole Foods, a merger that helped spark the creation of the Congressional Antitrust Caucus: "That was a moment when a lot of people looked up and suddenly realized that Amazon had grown into this enormous company with tentacles all over the place."
What surprised Mitchell about the response to her Nation article, though, was how readers assumed they should combat the encroaching global dominance of an unelected superpower. "Virtually everyone who wrote to me responded to this article from a consumer framework," she says. "I got a lot of emails that said 'I'm canceling my Prime account,' 'We should organize a boycott of Amazon,' 'I'm really cutting back my spending there.'" This was fascinating, says Mitchell, because her article talked exclusively about how to use antitrust policy to tackle Amazon not as consumers, but as citizens.
Protesters outside The Economic Club of Washington's Milestone Celebration (Cliff Owen/AP/Shutterstock)
This divide, says Mitchell, goes back to the all-but-forgotten battles of the 1930s against chain stores, which at the time were rapidly spreading across the nation by taking advantage of economies of scale (and modern marketing techniques) to undercut smaller competitors. Many states, she notes, at the time were imposing "chain store taxes" to balance the scales for small businesses, with levies that rose the more outlets a chain opened in a state.
In 1940, A&P — which had been the target of local protests over its increasing dominance of the retail food market — fought back against a particularly strenuous piece of proposed California legislation by appealing to voters not as workers or as small business owners, but as consumers. "A&P reconfigured this to say, 'We're a shopping option. You're a consumer. Don't you want to have this option to choose from?'" says Mitchell. The California measure was defeated, and big retailers had a new rhetorical weapon — consumer choice — to use against regulation.
The consumer movement gained strength in the 1960s, when groups launched boycott movements in response to waning political power — you might not have a union anymore to take your concerns to the state house, and your local councilmember might be bought off by lobbyists, but damned if you couldn't vote with your pocketbook.
"It did a lot of good — we're glad not to have pointy things in cars that will kill you," says Mitchell. But as such checks on corporate power as union organizing and trust-busting began to wane — and then, under President Reagan, suffered wholesale government assaults — the shift to consumer action largely defanged attempts to rein in monopoly power: "It's not that it's completely without value, but it offers an easy way out, and one that it's not very effective."
As an example, Mitchell points to the slow food movement, which she cites as the most broadly successful consumer movement in recent memory, well beyond boycotting sweatshop manufacturers or products of totalitarian regimes. "We have all these craft beer companies that didn't used to exist," she says. "We're growing wheat in Maine again." And yet, she says, locally grown food remains a tiny percentage of the overall food industry, which has become increasingly concentrated — "we've ended up with two or three ginormous processing companies, two or three ginormous retailers — and then on the margins, this vibrant local food movement, and nothing in between."
Not that Amazon opponents haven’t tried. In July, Amazon employee strikes in Europe over working conditions — and calls for an accompanying consumer boycott — on this year's Prime Day garnered lots of media attention. But there’s no indication that the action had a measurable hit on Amazon’s bottom line; the company, in fact, claimed its sales started off the day higher than ever (We may know more later in October when Amazon files its third quarter SEC report.)
Possibly the most successful consumer campaigns to take on corporate monopoly power have been the “buy local” movements that have been effective at encouraging consumers to think not just about how much money they’re spending (or how easy it is to make a purchase), but where that money ends up and how it affects communities. Starting with organizing against big-box stores in the 1990s, local small-business groups have had some success with turning shopping into a cultural and political statement as much as an economic decision.
Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, which launched 20 years ago with a buy-local campaign in Boulder, Colorado and quickly spread to other cities nationwide, advises looking at the broader consequences of your purchases, whether it’s saving local jobs for your community or helping to support the one place you can go to ask questions about products. ("There's no such thing as customer service at Amazon," he notes.)
“The last time that Amazon made a contribution to any event in your local community was probably never," says Milchin. “If your daughter’s soccer team or your son’s theater group depends on contributions from local businesses, you can’t expect to go to them for gift certificates and then do your business online and think you’re going to be able to continue that for very long.”
Of course, it’s hard to shop at local alternatives to Amazon if they’ve all gone out of business, whether thanks to corporate competition or sky-high rents. (Not to mention that it’s tough to run down to the corner bodega to pick up the new season of “The Tick.”) And it’s even harder for any consumer campaigns to be able to affect such things, for example, as the contract Amazon has quietly signed to sell school supplies, office products, and other necessities of democracy itself to a purchasing cooperative for more than 90,000 public agencies nationwide. That's firmly in the bailiwick of federal antitrust enforcement — in particular, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, the latter of which is recently hired antitrust researcher Lina Khan and is in the midst of a series of hearings on its role in checking "the power of platforms," for which it’s taking public comments through mid-November.
Mitchell also recommends using your role as consumer to get more engaged as a citizen. "If you've got a favorite bookstore or a hardware store that you like to go to, chat with the owners," she says. "Ask them how they're feeling about Amazon. It's always an interesting window on learning what the consequences of these companies are" — and also lets store owners know that customers are paying attention to their political landscape, and not just the prices on the shelves.
And, she says, "I absolutely think people should reexamine their Amazon spending." (This is, admittedly, increasingly hard: If you were hoping to avoid Amazon by buying your books from AbeBooks and your shoes from Zappos, think again, because Amazon owns both of those companies.) "But to imagine that that's a solution to this problem, I think, is very mistaken."
Just look at comparison pricing, and how Amazon has gotten people to assume that it offers the best prices for online purchases. "Amazon did a great job early on of being the cheapest in a great many circumstances, and that created an impression that lasts today,” says Milchen. And yet, especially given the company’s propensity for adjusting prices on the fly, that’s not always the case — and we may in fact have no way of knowing whether it’s the case.
"Do we know if Amazon is recognizing when we're shopping early on a Tuesday morning that we're in a hurry and we're not paying that much attention to prices?" asks Mitchell. When ILSR investigated that municipal purchasing contract, she notes, it found that one sample California school district that chose to purchase outside Amazon had spent 12% less than if it had gone through Amazon.
But, of course, doing all your purchasing through Amazon — whether you're an individual or a school district — is far more convenient than shopping around. And that drive for convenience, ultimately, is what we need to dispense with if we want to fight monopoly power. The drive for a one-click solution for all life's problems is a natural response to a life where time feels increasingly at a premium — but it also risks ceding ultimate power to whoever provides that button. The power of Amazon, says Mitchell, is that "they have managed to make buying from them so effortless that it doesn't even feel like you're doing anything at all."
Of course, Amazon isn't the only company to insert itself into our lives integrally in a way that hasn't been done since the rise of the railroads: We have already largely turned over our knowledge of the world around us to Google and our human relationships to Facebook. At least we don't refer to shopping as "Amazoning." Yet.
"It's all kind of come together at the same moment where we've gone from being delighted by these companies to suddenly realizing that we've handed the keys to the kingdom to them," says Mitchell.