The Amazon Conundrum

I am going to take a departure from my usual cycling complaints and hiking wishfulness to address a topic that seems rather important of late: Amazon. Being that I spend my days holding down a desk at a large independent bookstore, some might find it odd that I am quite a fan of shopping at this online behemoth. Sadly, most brick and mortar stores suck and if I have to shop at a store that sucks, then shopping online is usually less painful.

The retail world is in turmoil these days. The bland corporate chains are being eaten up by much livelier online competitors, much as those bland corporate chains had devoured the mom and pop stores before them. There are more and more retail markets where it is extremely difficult for small businesses to compete with the purchasing power of larger businesses, especially when coupled with the lower operating costs of a well run ecommerce model.

This is why we don’t see many little stores selling consumer electronics, and why there are fewer and fewer bookstores and music shops. Conversely, in places like Little Bay Root, we are seeing more boutique stores, that provide a mix of personal service, unique products, and community atmosphere. These new niche shops are the ones that will glide into cracks where the online giants can’t reach, and this is the way it should be.

This does mean some of the businesses we’ve taken for granted will dry up and blow away, especially now that so few of us have much in the way of purchasing power ourselves. The retail ecosystem is changing whether we like it or not.

Through all of this, we can’t lay the blame solely on Amazon’s doorstep. If anything, much of the blame lies with the discount chains that have been dying over the last few years: Borders and Circuit City, I am looking at you. They were the pioneers of using everyday deep discounts to attract customers away from their competitors. So to does a large share of the blame belong to the manufacturers, who have stacked the deck against smaller business for years by offering better terms only to the largest purchasers. Amazon, like Walmart has grown large enough to dictate to it’s suppliers, only because those suppliers rewarded it for getting larger in the first place. A self-reinforcing cycle that squeezes out the little fish.

Of course, many will also claim that online businesses shirk their tax duty by avoiding sales tax. Good for them. Sales tax is a regressive abomination that places an unfair share of the burden on the lower income brackets. If anything, it is time for the states to overhaul their failing tax systems and stop whining about the sales tax loopholes that were opened by mail order companies generations ago. I live in a state without sales tax for a reason.

It’s a funky time to be in business. Some business models are making money hand over fist and others are sinking fast. Now is a terrible time for a small business to be selling anything that they don’t produce themselves or somehow add unique value to. This is a bigger picture than any one company, but it is also inevitable at this point. Things change.

All that being said, support the businesses that you care about. If the shops in your neighborhood are cool, spend some money there. If you can’t afford to, then they might not actually be that cool. Oh, and stop being surprised when businesses do sleazy things to make money, that’s actually the way our brand of capitalism works: make your profit by any means necessary. If you don’t like that, then you’re going to have to do something other than ‘support local business’ to change it. Me, I’m holding out for post-scarcity anarchism.