Is Amazon Unstoppable?
As we approach the next US presidential elections, the chorus against big corporate will only get louder. Hence, it is only logical that the largest corporate – Amazon becomes front and centre of this outrage. Plenty has been written about Amazon’s ‘Day One’ and ‘Flywheel’ approach to business which has made it a relentless growth machine (apparently Bezos did consider naming the company Relentless in 1995) and the public outcry against Amazon’s lack of empathy with employees and a bullying attitude towards the state. But in this New Yorker piece, Charles Duhigg, the Pullitzer winning journalist and the author of the delightful The Power of Habit, gives a thoroughly researched and well balanced take on these two polarised views on the company. In true Duhigg style, the piece has plenty of anecdotes and details that can help build a clearer perspective.
“Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, said, “Amazon is a microeconomist’s wet dream. If you’re a consumer, it’s perfect for maximizing the efficiency of finding what you want and getting it as cheap and fast as possible. But, the thing is, most of us aren’t just consumers. We’re also producers, or manufacturers, or employees, or we live in cities where retailers have gone out of business because they can’t compete with Amazon, and so Amazon kind of pits us against ourselves.”
…More than a hundred thousand people work at Amazon’s fulfillment centers, and nearly everything they do is digitally tracked and evaluated, meaning that if someone falls behind—even for just a few minutes—it can be grounds for reprimand. Many employees carry handheld scanners that deliver a constant stream of instructions, such as a countdown clock detailing how many seconds remain until the next item must be plucked from a shelf. Workers can walk more than fifteen miles a day, and their breaks, including trips to the bathroom, are brief and closely measured. A company document explains, “Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality of productivity without input from supervisors.” A former warehouse employee told me that she knew of people who got fired largely “because they were too old, or their knees started acting up, or they just had a bad week.” She added, “Managers are always vague about what will get you fired, which creates this paranoia.” Employees, she said, sometimes ask questions about “what exactly will get them fired, and the responses are so vague that you basically know that if you’re not constantly moving, you’re probably gone.” Employees line up at vending machines that dispense free over-the-counter painkillers. For years, some Amazon warehouses lacked sufficient air-conditioning; this changed only after reports emerged, in 2011, of workers passing out and requiring emergency medical treatment for heat-related problems.
…Many Amazon executives have become defensive about the fact that even centrist politicians like Joe Biden see the company as a symbol of capitalism gone awry. (On Twitter, Biden recently said of Amazon, “No company pulling in billions of dollars of profits should pay a lower tax rate than firefighters and teachers.”) Jeff Wilke, one of Bezos’s top lieutenants, told me that Amazon “tries to be a good corporate citizen,” and added, “We’ve built a for-profit enterprise that is improving the lives of customers and taking great care of employees. There’s a lot to be proud of.” The company, he said, has committed to spending seven hundred million dollars to train its workers in such subjects as coding and robotics.
…One senior Amazon executive said of its warehouses, “It’s a hard economy for people without college degrees right now. We can’t run a philanthropy, but we’re trying to be the best of those bad kinds of jobs.” Another top executive suggested that Amazon was merely a cog in the American economic machine—and inevitably reflected how contemporary inequality had created winners and losers. “We’re doing what we can,” he said. “But ultimately this is a problem only the government can really solve—by changing how the economy works.”
….Amazon has always been unabashed about being a cutthroat competitor. When the company started, in 1995, with fewer than a dozen employees, Bezos considered naming it Relentless. (The company still owns the URL for relentless.com—it redirects you to Amazon.com.) Amazonians know that outsiders want them to change, but listening to outsiders is not one of the Leadership Principles. One executive told me, with barely suppressed resentment, “What has made us great for so long is suddenly being seen as something we ought to be ashamed of!”
…Amazon is a process company. Last year, it collected a hundred and twenty-two billion dollars from online retail sales, and another forty-two billion by helping other firms sell and ship their own goods. The company collected twenty-six billion dollars from its Web-services division, which has little to do with selling things to consumers, and fourteen billion more from people who sign up for such subscription services as Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited. Amazon is estimated to have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars from selling the Echo. Seventeen billion came from sales at such brick-and-mortar stores as Whole Foods. And then there’s ten billion from ad sales and other activities too numerous to list in financial filings. No other tech company does as many unrelated things, on such a scale, as Amazon.
…with the rise of Amazon, the give-and-take that has long undergirded the retail economy has become lopsided in a titan’s favor. “Capitalism is supposed to be a system of checks and balances,” he said. “It’s a marketplace where everyone haggles until we’re all basically satisfied, and it works because you can always threaten to walk away if you don’t get a fair deal. But when there’s only one marketplace, and it’s impossible to walk away, everything is out of balance. Amazon owns the marketplace. They can do whatever they want. That’s not capitalism. That’s piracy.”