Thoughts on Amazon’s Price Check App and Independent Bookstores

The American Booksellers Association responded to Amazon’s Price Check App promotion yesterday. In the letter, CEO Oren Teicher pointed out:

We could call your $5 bounty to app-users a cheesy marketing move and leave it at that. In fact, it is the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries.

Although the app does not directly apply to books, many independent bookstores are clearly upset as the app could apply to their sideline items like cards, gifts and games. Already under enormous pressure from the online retailer, many retailers are clearly fed up with customers who come in, check prices, look for new things to read and buy, then leave to get them more cheaply, and often without having to pay local sales tax, on Amazon.

What does the future hold for independents. Survive? Thrive? Extinction?

There’s a school of thought out on the ether that the internet always wins. Most likely true. We will be a poorer society if thirty years in the future we buy everything online and public spaces and daily routines are limited to a few mega corporate show rooms. While nature may abhor a monopoly, the crash that occurs when monopolies fail, as they ultimately do, is not something anyone should have to live through. Especially when we don’t need to have monopolies (except as fun board games).

Does Amazon play fair?

I’d like to offer three additional thoughts regarding this issue:

1) Amazon’s policy with regards to hiring, firing, and maintaining warehouse facilities is simply wrong. The use of “facilities” companies and hiring these workers at extraordinarily low wages and as “temporary” workers when they  really are full time employees is inexcusable. I know, they do it so I can buy stuff from them at incredibly cheap rates. But I don’t want to be responsible for the fact that some person in another state has to work two jobs so she can drive a twelve year old car and skip lunch so her kid can have cough syrup just so I can buy a cheap scarf or the latest Stephen King novel for half the price I would pay at Anderson’s Bookshop. It’s just wrong.

2) Their efforts to not have to charge local taxes  strikes me as rather unpatriotic. No one likes to pay taxes. I’m self employed so I know what it’s like to feel overburdened with taxes, paperwork and health insurance. No, it’s not like a major corporation, or even a small one. But I get it. However, I live in a community. That means I have responsibilities. I want my roads paved, my police and fire. I want safe water. Roofs on schools. Taxes are a part of life. Deal with it.

And of equal importance:

3) Markets need to be flexible. When markets consolidate in the name of efficiency, what you really have happen is the market becomes fragile. We’ve seen it in the newsstand business with the consolidation of magazine wholesalers. The fewer there are, the more fragile the market becomes if a major player gets into financial trouble. Or, if you, as a member of the market fall foul of one of the few remaining major players. If ultimately there are only three or four places to get either your e-books or your physical books, how healthy is that market? How much will the consumers choice be at the whim of the remaining major players?

I would contend that a community that is a mixture of independent and small franchise retailers and national chains is a healthier community than one with an empty downtown and a strip center on the outskirts full of big box stores and the usual remora retailers. The money stays local. The jobs stay local. The rents are reasonable.

This isn’t a screed against big, corporate America. I am enough of a realist to know how things work and understand that nothing is ever how it was and there are no clocks to turn back. But what I am opposed to is movement without thought and reflection. What, exactly, are we building and will it be better than what we have? Amazon is not inherently evil and independent retailers are not always good citizens. However, there’s no reason that we can’t have Amazon and independent bookstores. There is no reason they can not strive to provide not only affordable goods but also quality service. One does not have to be the death of the other. Both can be good corporate citizens.

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