The Good and Bad of Amazon

This guest post was written by James Lander, a contributing writer for daily deals site, Couponing. The site offers tips for entering the couponing world as well as daily deal breakdowns for top retailers.

The fable of the Tortoise and the Hare contains a valuable message – it’s the slow-starters that make the biggest impact over time. Concepts that seemed mediocre upon conception can become incredibly influential, creating ripples in all aspects of our culture. Amazon.com is the result one such concept. Initially a tiny company, it has grown to influence our society in a major way – for better and according to many, for worse.

How it all began

In 1994, Jeff Bezos founded one of the first online book retailers and began selling stock in the company for a mere 18 dollars a share. After a few slow years, many stockholders began to protest, complaining that the business wasn’t growing quickly enough to their liking. They needn’t have worried. Today, Amazon.com is the world’s largest online retailer, having diversified their stock from books to all forms of media and practically anything else you might imagine. The site receives over 615 million visits monthly and enjoyed profits totaling over 30 billion in 2010. This kind of enormous success always elicits criticism, but unfortunately in the case of Amazon.com the majority of it appears to be warranted.

The Angel of Amazon’s shoulder

E-books are rapidly consuming the publishing industry. Amazon has kept up with and even fed our new obsession by not only inventing one of the first dedicated e-book readers, but allowing literally anyone to publish their work for free on the Kindle site. Whereas previously an author had to struggle with rejection for years in order to be noticed, writers today can simply submit their work on Amazon and have it available for purchase immediately. Voices that previously might have been silenced by publishing industry politics are now being heard, allowing freedom of speech, artistic expression and income potential for absolutely everyone.

The company can also be credited for the new ‘reading renaissance’ that is currently underway. We are obsessed with technology and convenience. Therefore, when Amazon introduced the Kindle, it became an immediate status symbol for those who wished to be entertained while staying on the cutting edge. After Oprah Winfrey spent almost an entire program singing its praises, the Kindle became the next ‘must have’ item. As a result, e-book sales have been consistently breaking records with gains as much as 145% in one year. One might go so far as to credit Amazon for creating a generation that will be much more well read than any before it. Angelic indeed.

Meet the Devil

During the first week of November 2011, Amazon released ‘Flow’ (pictured above): an app for mobile devices that would cause many consumers and merchants to lose a great deal of respect for the company. Flow allows shoppers to scan the barcodes of items they are interested in and receive information pertaining to it almost instantly on their device. It certainly sounds useful. However, just as quickly as they receive the product details, they learn about how much Amazon is selling it for and are given the option to purchase it online, right then.

Paul Constant, Seattle’s The Stranger book editor and contributing blogger, reprimanded the company severely: accusing it of “taking advantage of (merchant’s) high overhead by treating them as product showrooms without giving them a cent of subsidy.” Obviously, Flow and the Amazon website itself poses a major threat to brick and mortar bookstores. Not only are they swaying customers away with a superior selection of titles but they are now exploiting these companies by using them as free advertising.

One might even go so far as to equate them with spies – making their way secretly into every corner bookshop via customers’ iPhones and Androids, gathering as much information about their competitors as possible. What’s worse is that Amazon has incentivized the use of the Flow – offering users $5 (Constant points out, also, that it’s actually only $5 if you spend $100, 5% off).

In the past, the CEOs of Barnes and Noble have accused Amazon.com of being more of a book ‘broker’ than a seller. This accusation suggests that the business is soulless and more concerned with profit than literary passion. This is terrible press for Amazon because purchasing something off the site is raising ethical questions. For some, the morally questionable ‘Flow’ may be enough to sway them away from Amazon entirely but for others the promise of extra money in their pockets may override any objections. Nevertheless, as always it is up to the consumer to choose where they spend their money. It might be wise for Amazon to take into account that these consumers are becoming just as concerned with the where as they are with the why.