Should Amazon just take over?
That it lets me buy ant traps online in 40 seconds, gets them to my house in two days and charges a good price for it all is kind of miraculous, don't you think?
Funny. When Amazon hiked the annual cost of Amazon Prime — its “free” two-day shipping service, with some digital content added — to $99, many customers complained. Not I.
I love Amazon. I do, I do. Yet the company gives me the creeps in several ways.
Start with books. Amazon has sent most of the bookshops in which I happily lingered into oblivion. As it branched out into selling everything else, it impoverished the lovely little downtown stores selling shoes, printers, bug lights and dog collars — at least the ones Wal-Mart hadn't already obliterated.
The question is: When Amazon crushes what's left of the competition, will it then raise prices to gouging levels? That's what monopolies do.
But let's be positive again. Amazon commands so much of the market because it gives consumers like me low prices and good service. This is done at the expense of profit margins, which is why, despite Amazon's enormous revenue growth ($75 billion last year), its famously patient investors have yet to enjoy a gusher of reward.
I used to enjoy righteous indignation over Amazon's opposition to collecting the same sales taxes that retailers with a store, a warehouse or another physical presence in a state had to. That gave the Internet giant an unfair price advantage over local merchants.
Then what does Amazon go out and do? It turns around and supports an organized system for collecting online sales taxes.
It happens that this fit with the plan to place warehouses — Amazon calls them “fulfillment centers”! — all over the country to allow for fast delivery of stuff. Thus, Amazon would have had to collect a lot of sales taxes anyway.
Amazon has entered the smartphone business. Its new Fire Phone has this neat feature: You point the phone at an object of desire. The phone will see it or hear it and then may help you buy it.
(My nightmare is directing the phone toward the sound of Schubert's 9th Symphony and finding I bought not the album but the Cleveland Orchestra.)
Yes, Amazon is into music streaming, and did I mention filmmaking?
It's also into taking over Seattle. The company just tossed another half-million square feet of Seattle office space into the cart. That's in addition to the 5 million-plus square feet it already owns or leases.
The company has come under considerable criticism for its behavior in a pricing dispute with Hachette Book Group, slowing the sales of the publisher's works. With Amazon so dominant in bookselling, this raises cultural concerns.
Some argue that Amazon is not the only mammoth stomping through the online jungle. Its advance may be checked by the likes of Wal-Mart and Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce titan.
But that wouldn't leave a lot of room for the indie booksellers still on Main Street, would it? And bless them for holding out.
Am I overthinking this? Perhaps my faith in the creative-destructive powers of capitalism is so weak that I can't conceive of other business models saving us from Amazon's dominion.
The other question is: Do we want to be saved? If the answer is no, then perhaps the time has come to just dump ourselves in the cart, click “Proceed to checkout” and be done with it.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com
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