by Benn Ray
Experience has shown me it's really a matter of two things when confronting people about the dangers of beloved, massive, corporate businesses.
1. The education process. This is the easy one, but it requires patience - sometimes a mind-numbing amount of patience. When we created Independent Hampden back in 2004 to push back against encroaching formula chain retail establishments looking to open on the Avenue in Hampden, we had to educate people as to why these corporate chains were a bad thing.
The benefits of independent retail over corporate retail are not, for most, self-evident - if they were, well corporate chain retail wouldn't have the preferred status it currently benefits from in our society.
We had to point out that Independent Hampden was more than just about preventing the typical homogenization of a unique city neighborhood - y'know, replacing independent, local businesses with the same old businesses you could find along York Road or Ritchie Highway.
We had to explain over and over how, for every $1 you spend at a chain, roughly 12-15 cents (depending on which study you use) actually stays in your community while 45-65 cents of every dollar you spend at a local, independent retailer stays in your community. We had to explain how local, independent retailers also employ other local, independent businesses - your accountants, your payroll services, your local insurance agents, your local security services, your contractors, painters, etc. while corporate chains have central home offices, typically located out of state that handle all that. We showed study after study that reveals that local, independent businesses give more money to local charities than corporate chains do.
And eventually it started to sink in.
That is until an out of state developer wanted to dump a Lowes and Wal-Mart in the center of a thriving small business district, and then we had to begin the education process all over again, this time via Bmore Local. We had to show people how the jobs being promised by developers and city leaders actually came at a cost - to the local taxpayer - and that new jobs weren't actually created, existing jobs were just replaced with lower-paying, lower-benefited, employee-hostile jobs.
We had to show that study after study shows that these sorts of big box businesses externalize expenses to the point in which their full-time employees must use social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. That the supposed savings these big box stores offer come at an expense - typically a subsidy we as taxpayers give without even being aware of it.
2. Combating brand identification/loyalty. This is much more difficult because it involves irrational attitudes in relation to consumption.
The problem is, as Karl Marx pointed out, a commodity is never just an object we buy and consume - a commodity is an object full of theological, even metaphysical niceties. When you buy an item from a store, you aren't just buying from that store, you are buying an ideology - and that ideology varies depending on the shop you buy from.
For example, if you shop from Wal-mart or Amazon, you come to believe you have a right to extreme discounts. This entitlement manifests itself in Amazon shoppers who use smart phones to "showroom" at bookstores - meaning they use non-Amazon bookstores to browse titles they either use their smart phone to buy from Amazon or they go home and buy later from Amazon and not even realize this behavior is inappropriate, short-sighted, and helps to ensure they won't even have bookstores to browse in the future (as many communities are already aware).
This entitlement manifests itself in the angry comments I got from pro-Wal-mart Baltimoreans who, upon learning that the 25th St. Station development collapsed and that its representatives were blaming me and some of my friends, send me their irrational rage that implied they were somehow entitled to have a Wal-Mart in the neighborhood. Typically, when I pointed out the sheer absurdity of such an attitude by asking them what a Baltimore in which every city neighborhood had a Wal-Mart in it might look like, they dropped their complaints.
Capitalism is religious in nature. Just look a the way zealots worship the mythical free market.
And where you shop involves the same consumption of ideology as the brands you buy. That is why we see people who seem to irrationally belong to the Cult of Mac. That's why, when in the past few weeks, when the unpleasantness of Amazon became readily apparent to every person who has ever one-clicked, there were still zealots, desperate to defend the vicious monopsony from the increasing chorus of criticism as a result of its hardball negotiations with big publisher Hachette.
But it really came as no surprise to those who look at Amazon without being tainted by brand identification or ideology. After all, while working hard to utterly own/dominate the book world, selling books for next to nothing, avoiding taxes for years, the company has also managed to not turn a profit while continuing to get investor revenue and Bezos getting stupid rich (some could argue their promise of revolutionary, global-changing logistics is little more than a scam). And at this point, Amazon has more in common with Wal-mart than it does with any bookseller.
Over the years, Amazon has removed "copies of 1984 from Kindles without the device owners’ consent, ... mistreat[ed] ... warehouse workers, ... less than one-sixth of the company’s senior executives were women, and, again, the lack of charitable giving. (... in comparison with other large local corporations like Microsoft or Boeing, they’re impossibly stingy.)"
"The largest bookseller in the United States is a transparency-hating libertarian corporation that doesn’t think about art except as units to be moved. Their goal is to put their competition—authors, publishers, retailers—out of business, and Bezos designed Amazon to be as relentless as possible in pursuing that mission. ..."
So why do people still shop at Amazon?
"[People] who would never set foot in a Walmart are passionate about their love of Amazon. Ideals become easy prey when convenience is at stake. ... All the ugliness of Amazon is behind the scenes, hidden behind a thick wall of corporate silence, and for that concealment, any number of people who consider themselves good citizens are willing to trade their loathing of Walmart for a deep and abiding love of the Great Walmart in the Sky."
Still feel good about that Amazon account? I don't see how, unless you are simply indulging in the theocratic nature of capitalism. That brand identification, ideological subscription means more to you than the actual books, records, movies and diapers you buy from Amazon.
I don't know how Hachette's battle with Amazon will play out. Of course I'm rooting for Hachette - I'm rooting for the publisher, the authors. I also think now would be a great time for every other major publisher to press Amazon's hand and force a renegotiation of their terms. Will this happen? No.
In fact, it's very possible that Hachette and Amazon could be the next Rubbermaid and Wal-mart - where American company Rubbermaid simply could not meet Wal-mart's terms and were dropped by the retailer and ended up going out of business.
But Amazon can't concede, because they will then lose the power to bully every other publisher. But part of the problem here is that publishers have created this beast. Instead of partnering with existing booksellers, publishers have simply catered to Amazon, helping them secure 50% of the book market share - making them too big to handle.
I've been to BEA (Book Expo America) several times (the book industry's biggest convention), only to have major publishers look at my badge and see that I wasn't from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-mart or Costco and promptly ignore me. This indicates a lemming-like determination for self-destruction. Or maybe I'm just being pissy cuz my little feelings got hurt.
Regardless, there are still booksellers out here. And a little support from publishers would go a long way in helping them sell books and not being so reliant on Amazon. But publishers and some readers are so anxious to bury the "middlemen" (as I've seen some ignorant Amazonians call bookstores), and so lazy, I find it highly unlikely that they'll take the path of long-term self-preservation, and instead sell their products under-value to a vicious, monopsonistic online retailer that cares not about what they are selling, just how quickly and cheaply they can sell it while plotting to own every aspect of the book world.