One night earlier this week, I pulled up to my garage door. It was late (for me) and dark. I was tired and just wanted to eat and go to bed. My husband spends two or three nights a week away, so all was quiet. And there in my headlights – a large carton with the “smiley arrow” of my least favorite retailer emblazoned on it. Aggravating enough to have to get out of the car in the cold and drag the carton inside; more aggravating because I don’t have the same happy reaction to receiving a package from this source as I do from Talbot’s or Land’s End.
The package was addressed to my husband, so I left it unopened in a prominent location. Even after all these years, we still respect the privacy of mail, packages, etc. But after all these years, I did feel free to get a little snarky when speaking to him on the phone: “Since when are we shopping on the dark side?” He disclaimed any contact with the despised source of the shipment, and technically, he had not crossed over. When the package was opened, it contained envelopes of an uncommon size which he had ordered from a small company. But guess who did the fulfillment and shipping?
This incident got me thinking about how this one large company has permeated every aspect of our lives, and how hard they are to avoid. In my shop I have daily reminders. Yesterday a customer asked if we had free Wi-Fi so that she could check her wish-list on A#%&* against my used-book prices. She was not consciously “showrooming” (identifying books she wanted or that I recommended to order elsewhere later), but doing what she considered to be normal comparison shopping. It never occurred to her that I might bristle (which action I carefully concealed) at the mention of the name. For her, and many others, the main retailer is A#%&*. She was astute enough, however, to realize that her chosen source is not always the cheapest despite what they would have you believe.
I have observed for a long while the use of the word “Kindle” as a synonym for “electronic reader.” In fact, I rarely hear “electronic reader” except from my own mouth. I can be reading on my iPad and have someone ask how I like reading on my “Kindle.” I was surprised to see in recent analyses of A#%&*’s business that they have about 60% of the e-book market; I would have thought it was higher. If the ordinary shopper, desiring an e-reader, searches on-line for “kindle,” they will have several models to choose from, but will also become a captive customer, since they will have only once source for books.
One company’s domination of a market to the point that they can set prices not only for customers who have no choice but for their suppliers who are equally without options is illegal; it’s called a monopoly. Whether A#%&*’s market power has reached that point is a subject of debate, and will sooner or later be resolved in the courts. While closing the doors of some competitors, they have opened doors to entrepreneurs and to authors that were not available before. And they have not succeeded in enmeshing themselves in every market they have entered. Witness the Fire Phone. Or their foray into publishing, where the refusal of independent booksellers to carry their books has actually kept authors away and contributed to the recent resignation of a high-profile editor of their “literary” imprint. But for the most part, it’s hard to avoid contact. Audible.com, Good Reads, now television; if you want the most common sources of entertainment or the easiest to access, they’ve bought it or created an alternative. I may be the last person in the country without a Prime account.
My resentment of the dominance of A#%&* in every aspect of our lives has recently been supplemented by another concern. The company does not seem to be profitable. Lynne Patrick wrote here a few weeks ago about the simple concept that any business needs to make enough money to pay its bills to continue operating, and needs to show a return on investment if it hopes to keep investors. (“It’s a mystery”) Although Lynne did not mention A#%&* by name, her post was closely timed to the quarterly earnings reports, which were coupled with the company’s own forecast of even greater losses in the fourth quarter. The response is that they are investing for the future. I, too, would like to take all my sales revenue and invest it in more inventory, technology upgrades, redecorating, and many other projects that would enhance future business. Unfortunately, the electric company, the book publishers, and many others would like to be paid for the products and services they have already supplied. I’m not sure how to work around that without bankruptcy.
What if my fantasy were to come true, and there was no more A#%&*? For me, it would probably have little impact. There would be an increase in sales which would be pleasant. But what about overall book sales? The publishers and authors would suffer. More chain and independent stores would surely appear, along with additional on-line retailers. But it would take some time. The manufacturer of oddly sized envelopes would have to find an alternative for fulfilling and shipping orders. Authors who have found a place to sell their work (even at 99 cents) and get some exposure would be back to trying to drive traffic to their own websites What about all the manufacturers and retailers, large and small, who rely on this one company as their prime outlet? Every area of commerce that has been overtly or covertly infiltrated by the overpowering retailer would suffer. Alternatives would spring up, but not overnight. There would be a big hit to this slowly recovering economy. So is Amazon (there, I said it!) too big to fail? Would they get a government bailout? I wonder.