Amazon has unveiled its latest brick and mortar experiment, a bizarre bazaar in New York City, made up of items rated 4-stars or higher on Amazon.com, which seems to exist predominantly to continue the company’s energetic push to ensure that everyone in the world has a Prime account. But from the corporation that drove so many family bookshops and small retailers to the wall with a calculatedly loss-making, tax swerving strategy, it also feels like the latest instalment in a long history of high street trolling.
The joy of a boutique or a small bookshop are the acts of curation undertaken by the shopkeeper. While Amazon has become, to quote the title of a bestselling book on the company, “the everything store”, shops bounded by real walls are about choices — what stock will sell when and in what quantities – and often vibrantly express the personalities and interests of their owners. That’s particularly true of bookshops. But Amazon 4-Star represents the choice of the crowd, stocking majority interests mediated by algorithmic interference.
While 4-Star throws Alexa-enabled gadgets, cookware, books and other well-reviewed items together in a hodgepodge and may turn out to be a pop-up experience, Amazon also has permanent bookshops dotted around the United States. They stock titles based on a mix of professional reviews, GoodReads data, sales performance and the hidden hand of human curators from Amazon Books. The The New Yorker’s assessment of the first Amazon bookstore to open in New York was lukewarm at best:
[These stores] exist far less to serve the desires of the reader than to serve the needs of Amazon, a company whose twenty-year campaign to “disrupt” bookstores has now killed off much of the competition, usurped nearly half of the U.S. book market, and brought it back, full circle, to books on shelves.
Beyond books and electronics, Amazon has rolled out its experimental Go stores, which don’t need assistants and simply charge you for the items you walk out with and seems on the cusp of a full frontal assault on the traditional supermarkets following its $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods in June 2017. Since it took over the grocery chain, the company has slashed prices and introduced discounts for Prime customers. Expanding to take on the grocery giants in the US and the UK only seems like a matter of time.
While it’s hard… no, scratch that, impossible to weep for Walmart or Tesco, I think it’s entirely reasonable to feel queasy about Amazon opening another front in its battle to sell us everything we could possibly need in every location. Amazon became as powerful and wealthy as it is on the backs of suppliers, authors and a highly creative attitude to paying local taxes. In 2016, it paid just £15 million on European revenues of £19 billion. When it further invades the high streets, it won’t suddenly grow an interest in the local community or being a good corporate citizen (whatever one of those looks like).
Quartz’s conclusion after visiting the 4-Star store is worth dwelling upon: “It feels like a website.” That’s what any vastly increased Amazon presence on high streets will be — embassies for its online empire, employing human beings on minimum wage only for as long as they’re more economically efficient than robots. And there will be nothing unique about the stock you find there, about the choice of books or the way they’re displayed. When they’re Amazon grocery stores, the humans that scurry in at night to maintain them will not be able to afford to shop there in the daylight.
The Amazon Books stores make virtually no money. They exist as another means to hook people into Prime. That’s the vision for every brick and mortar extension that Amazon inflicts upon the world — hooking more people into Prime. In the dark dreams of Jeff Bezos, there’s nothing you can or will buy that wouldn’t be cheaper with a Prime account, no spit, cough or arse cleaning that can’t be turned into data about your habits, no consumable that you shouldn’t have on auto-reorder from Amazon. To me, it feels like a very mundane kind of nightmare.