My Strange Fear About Amazon’s Dominance

Barnes and Noble’s quarterly results came out today, and they’re not good; sales down 10%, store-to-store comparisons down, Nook sales down.  It looks like B&N is sliding the way of Borders…. though since they’re much better managed and essentially the only big dog left in the show, I think they’ll have more fight in ’em.

That said, I’m actually terrified of Amazon winning the book war.  Or any war involving retail.

It’s not because I think Amazon is an evil company – well, okay, they are an evil company, but pretty much all companies are evil.  As The Corporation accurately said, corporations are sociopaths, feral beasts designed to devour the competition and minimize costs at any price.  There’s some human element of resistance flitting about within the soul of the Beast, but not much, and as a result I think cheering for Apple over Microsoft or Google is like having a favorite killer bear.  They’re all going to turn on you, if they’re hungry.

No, I worry about the end of cheap gas.

Right now, Amazon’s high because shipping is pretty damn cheap.  We can afford to have UPS drivers going from home to home, delivering shit right to your door… which is a colossal usage of energy, if you think about it.  Before, you shipped books from a warehouse to a mostly-central location, but now the pattern is increasingly, “Let’s not deliver one large package to the shop in the middle of town, but hundreds of smaller packages to everyone in the town.”

And if prices rise sharply, then what happens?  Suddenly, Amazon.com – or any other delivery service – will become unaffordable.  (Sure, that $25 free shipping is genius, but if it suddenly cost you $10 for every package, would you bother?)  And if that happens, and Amazon has consumed the other competition, there won’t be the infrastructure to buy locally.  All the bookshops will be gone, the Best Buys and Circuit Cities demolished, and what the fuck will we do then?

Oh, I know, you bold believers in capitalism think, “Oh, we’ll just flex back!  No problem!  Business is almighty, it’ll adapt!”  But that’s a lot of retail expertise lost, and a lot of poor and rural neighborhoods underserved, and I think we’ll find that when delivering door-to-door becomes unfeasible, a lot of people will be left without the ability to get stuff.  Or, more accurately, they’ll be able to get stuff at ridiculously high delivery prices that will cripple their budget.

As a result, I’m always a little against Amazon.  Which is silly, on some levels; I work for an internet retailer, and it’s like rooting against my own job security.  But still.  I want the brick and mortars around, because in the back of my mind the collapse is coming, the end of oil is coming, the zombies are coming, and dammit we should be prepared.

6 Comments

  1. pureval
    Jan 3, 2013

    I think that is exactly the reason Amazon is pushing as much as they can to be digital. No need to worry about gas or delivery costs when everything goes directly to your Kindle.

  2. Lincoln
    Jan 3, 2013

    Before we shipped things to people’s doors, society was still doing the work of getting the books home — people were just doing that work themselves. In fact, they’re doing more work since they get themselves to the stores, pick up the books, then bring the books home.

    I bet it’s cheaper overall to have deliveries (which can be batched, and where the cost of each marginal item is small) — even when you take into account that people can pick up multiple items, that they sometimes go to stores while doing other things, and so on.

  3. Richard A
    Jan 3, 2013

    There’s also that inconvenient fact that our economy depends on the many, many jobs supplied by the retail sector, which is shrinking a lot faster than Wired’s beloved “creative” sector is growing. (And the first group was never likely to transition well to the second, anyway.)

    If retail stores, as a thing, largely go away, hmmm… And I’m not really seeing economic pundits even thinking much about this issue, much less coming up with any alternative arrangements that might keep their engine chugging away.

  4. Jim
    Jan 3, 2013

    I don’t think the problem is as bad as you are guessing–remember, _one_ UPS truck can accomplish the equivalent of hundreds of individual consumers driving to the local mall. I vaguely recall some claims a few years back as web-commerce was taking off that centralized delivery of consumer goods could be an overall win in terms of reducing total gas usage.

  5. Yamakage
    Jan 4, 2013

    I don’t think gas will be too much of an issue.
    If gas gets to be too much, if anybody can shoulder switching a fleet of vehicles to hydrogen or electric, delivery companies might just be it.

  6. Sean
    Jan 23, 2013

    Can we also address the fact that NOOK Books are yours when you purchase them? Amazon is simply selling you a license that can be revoked. This is my biggest complaint about Amazon and, probably, my biggest fear in the long run.

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