Let's have an Amazon.com-free Christmas this year

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Amazon.com-free ChristmasRecently on twitter I said something I’m sure lost me a few followers,  “Let’s make it an amazon free Christmas.” (Though I don’t doubt I say plenty of things on any given day that make people wonder why they associate with me!). But in either case, it’s true, let’s boycott Amazon and every other big corporate chain store this Christmas! This is really how I feel these days. I’m tired of the big company’s crushing all these little local shops. Store after store in our little downtown of Camas is going under and I’ve already mentioned the major bone I have with what Amazon is doing to our independent bookstores. I’ve been boycotting Amazon for all my book buying at least since the time I wrote that post in favor of shopping at places like Fuller Seminary Bookstore, Powell’s books or Abebooks online. But I want to extend this challenge beyond just books to everything that can be purchased on Amazon.com.

One thing I find rather tragic is just how many people Christian bloggers are in bed with Amazon. It’s really surprising that even some of the most alternative thinking folks I know become very mainstream when it comes to getting the cheapest possible books (or other products) they can find, or making money on every book link they have in a post (most often with no disclaimers anywhere).

But I should be up front, I really don’t like any big box stores: Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods, you name it (though you will spot me at some of these from time to time, I honestly try and avoid them as much as possible).  And I am already boycotting Amazon, so I’m  not generally tempted to shop there; I guess this makes my challenge more of an open invitation than a personal one. I started turning against these, what we might call, homogeneous consumption troughs back when I was in high-school back in Alliance Ohio. We watched Wal-Mart move in, and destroy tons of the local businesses in our small town and in my estimation Alliance has never fully recovered (here’s an interesting profile of a woman who worked at that particular store). That one experience left me a little bitter and started me on another path: I start looking for different ways (and places) to spend my money to support businesses I believed in.

Let’s face it Amazon.com is the Wal-Mart of the Web. They are taking over, cutting costs, and helping to finish off whatever is left of small town America. In the film “What Would Jesus Buy?” Rev. Billy has a funeral for small town America next to the Wal-Mart headquarters; I’d be interested in having an online (blog) funeral for the same thing Amazon is doing to local bookstores, music stores, and everybody else they’ve set their sights on (I highly recommend the film).

Of course, one response to my Amazon-free Christmas twitter remark was fair enough: “The people who supply to or work for Amazon don’t need the money?” He’s right, yes, they most certainly do, or at least some of them do. But why not go directly to the company, or person selling the good and cutting the middle person out? Further, do you really need that thing you’re buying from Amazon in the first place? Surely you’re not purchasing most items to benefit the other person, so one of our first questions should always be: do I need to buy this thing in order to have what possessing it promises? I’ve found that so many of the things I really need, I can find used on craigslist, at a garage sale, or from a friend who is no longer using it (church email groups are great for this kind of thing!). And of course there’s the whole “You don’t need to buy a gift to give a gift,” line that Rev. Billy preaches that is about as Gospel as they come. Making gifts are really one of the best ways to go. Why spend a lot of money (or any!) on Christmas, is that what it’s all about?

But then I ran across this post on the lives of Amazon.com workers and things start to look even less favorable for the corporation ironically named after the very thing it is helping to decimate (paper anyone?). Here are some of the conditions reported from warehouses in the UK that the post highlights:

- Warned that the company refuses to allow sick leave, even if the worker has a legitimate doctor’s note. Taking a day off sick, even with a note, results in a penalty point. A worker with six points faces dismissal.

- Made to work a compulsory 10-hour overnight shift at the end of a five-day week. The overnight shift, which runs from Saturday evening to 5am on Sunday, means they have to work every day of the week.

- Set quotas for the number of items to be picked or packed in an hour that even a manager described as ‘ridiculous’. Those packing heavy Xbox games consoles had to pack 140 an hour to reach their target.

- Set against each other with a bonus scheme that penalises staff if any other member of their group fails to hit the quota.

- Made to walk up to 14 miles a shift to collect items for packing.

- Given only one break of 15 minutes and another of 20 minutes per eight-hour shift and told they had to notify staff when going to the toilet. Amazon said workers wanted the shorter breaks in exchange for shorter shifts.

Inside The Lives Of Amazon.com Warehouse Employees

Now certainly this is just one report and doesn’t cover every warehouse they have (though the are lawsuits in the US for some of the same issues), but let’s not lose the point: these are not statistics that should be popping up in the warehouses of such rich corporations like Amazon (the way they do with Wal-Mart, etc).  I want to raise a basic question about shopping online: with an even greater amount of anonymity that the Web provides businesses, in what ways are you being careful about the impact of shopping for really cheap things from some other states and countries and how it impacts your local communities (and Does it matter to you?) But also, what about that company’s business practices and how it treats its employees, will you support (i.e. give your money to) a company that treats its employees poorly, runs them into the ground and takes advantage of them? At least with Wal-Mart you can walk in and take a look at how people are being treated, and you can ask the employees how things are going for them. Of course, if we know the answer will we respond? This is generally not the case for our online shopping and Amazon is starting to get in trouble for some of its poor working conditions. Let’s respond this year.

So I reassert my challenge, Let’s have an Amazon.com-free Christmas this year.

[Image from Huffingtonpost.com]

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Wess

A papa, Quaker minister, Phd in Intercultural Studies from Fuller, & prof. Contributor to Antioch Sessions. Angelic troublemaker & #sketchnote preacher. Enjoys #remix, liberation theology, bourbon & a wool vest.
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44 thoughts on “Let's have an Amazon.com-free Christmas this year”

  1. Hi, Wess! I'm not going to boycott Amazon.com. I don't see the logic of punishing a company for being successful. (By "successful" I mean creating a promise to their customers and consistently delivering on their promise, thereby gaining more customers and more business. At what point should a business declare that they don't want more customers and more trade?)

    I DO see the point of examining their corporate behavior and responding personally, and persuading others to respond, so I am glad you're following your leading. I plan to stay tuned to these sorts of reports about Amazon.com–and I think it's quite right to hold their corporate feet to the public fire–but I'm not yet persuaded to give up the excellent service they've given me for years, especially as an overseas customer.

    "Disclaimer"–I link to Amazon.com book pages in my blog as a convenient pathway to more description and commentary on the books I mention. People can buy the books through those links, and over the years I've gotten almost enough credit from those clicks to buy one book. I've thought about using other ways to provide commentary on books, such as librarything.com, but none seem as convenient to implement. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Johan,
      Thanks for the comment. In understand that Amazon is successful in the terms you describe, but other businesses are also successful and are doing similar things that have better practices. For instance, Emily just commented to me that I should have written "Fuller Bookstore Employees are the happiest people on earth" it's an overstatement, but not by much. It is seriously the best place I have ever worked (besides of course, camas – smile). Anyways, what's the trade off? Can you have the good service, but go with someone else who is better about treating their people, and isn't (in my opinion) uprooting local culture?

      I think your question is fair, the only response I have to "By "successful" I mean creating a promise to their customers and consistently delivering on their promise, thereby gaining more customers and more business" is that I want to be sure we know who's back this is being done on. I personally don't think success should the criteria we use for who we shop from.

      But I have no doubt you're thinking about this and are being careful, I appreciate your point that you say "you're not convinced" rather than you "will never do it." I am also happy you commented here with another side perspective on this.

      In terms of linking to books – I've been linking to Powell's for the last couple years. Their reviews are just as good or better than Amazon and if you want enroll in their affiliate program they offer far more in returns than Amazon. Plus, then you're helping out Portland! That's of course, just one option. Google books is a great place to link, publisher pages (cutting out the middle person) or the author's webpage or bookpage are good ideas as well.

      I don't know about getting books overseas, but I know Abebooks.com does have UK vendors. The nice thing about them is they work with independent sellers.

      Thanks again.

    2. Hi Johan,
      Thanks for the comment. In understand that Amazon is successful in the terms you describe, but other businesses are also successful and are doing similar things that have better practices. For instance, Emily just commented to me that I should have written "Fuller Bookstore Employees are the happiest people on earth" it's an overstatement, but not by much. It is seriously the best place I have ever worked (besides of course, camas – smile). Anyways, what's the trade off? Can you have the good service, but go with someone else who is better about treating their people, and isn't (in my opinion) uprooting local culture?

      I think your question is fair, the only response I have to "By "successful" I mean creating a promise to their customers and consistently delivering on their promise, thereby gaining more customers and more business" is that I want to be sure we know who's back this is being done on. I personally don't think success should the criteria we use for who we shop from.

      But I have no doubt you're thinking about this and are being careful, I appreciate your point that you say "you're not convinced" rather than you "will never do it." I am also happy you commented here with another side perspective on this.

      In terms of linking to books – I've been linking to Powell's for the last couple years. Their reviews are just as good or better than Amazon and if you want enroll in their affiliate program they offer far more in returns than Amazon. Plus, then you're helping out Portland! That's of course, just one option. Google books is a great place to link, publisher pages (cutting out the middle person) or the author's webpage or bookpage are good ideas as well.

      I don't know about getting books overseas, but I know Abebooks.com does have UK vendors. The nice thing about them is they work with independent sellers.

      Thanks again.

  2. Great theme! I haven't been here in a while so I don't know if it's new…
    I order everything, from my french press and blender to lamps, printers and books, from Amazon.co.uk since I have that prime thing and overnight shipping costs nothing… it's a great deal and is easier than going to the shops!

    I appreciate being made aware of that times article. It is disturbing and gives food for thought. You're lucky for having The Archives near you… if there was on here I'd buy from it. Honestly I have seen my patronage of Amazon, an American company, as somewhat of a patriotic act.

    1. Hi Johnny,
      Thanks for stopping by! It must have been awhile, you missed the news that we moved to Camas, Washington! No archives anymore. But we do have Powells about 25 min. away which is the mecca of awesome bookness.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. In all the above, I find this query most compelling: "Do I need to buy this thing in order to have what possessing it promises?"

    This is a very incisive query that takes a spiritual scalpel to the very marrow of our simple living testimony. Much of the time, our desire to own a thing is a symptom of a deeper miasma or a disconnect in our families, communities, land, and Nature. Sometimes, we can do without the thing and work to mend those vital relationships instead. Sometimes the relationships are so broken that we can't hope to repair them in a life-giving way before the need for a thing harms us or those we care about.

    On the other hand, I don't follow your argument to boycott Amazon and other successful retailers. The first part of your argument goes something like this: a certain retailer opens up, becomes successful, and other, in this case smaller, retailers lose business or go out of business. Therefore, we should hold the successful retailer morally culpable for the loss of smaller retailers. The language in the piece above reinforces the idea of culpability: Amazon and Walmart didn't just open and shop and offer their products to voluntary customers; they "destroyed" local business!

    But that's just not true. Amazon is successful not because they have a strategy to destroy others, but because *many people prefer Amazon's service*– through voluntary exchange, on the whole, people value Amazon more than they value the store that went out of business. It's not because they are doing something dishonest, fraudulent, or coercive; it's because they have taken a risk and applied creativity to develop new ways to identify and satisfy people's preferences.

    What preferences does Amazon satisfy? For one, all physical stores have limited shelf space, and they need to be draconian about what books they keep in stock. That means bookstores for the general public will carry only the books most likely to penetrate the short-attention-span awareness of mainstream culture: the next Twilight, Harry Potter, Sarah Palin, or whatever else is capturing the popular imagination, for good or ill. Specialty bookstores can curate their selection to more specialized interests, but most small towns and even small cities can't support the overhead of too many specialty bookstores. The genius of Amazon is that it eliminates this pressure toward homogenization of the stock toward pop-culture; the marginal cost of adding shelf-space for one or a hundred more books to a bookstore is prohibitive, but the marginal cost of adding one or a trillion more links to Amazon is miniscule. Therefore, Amazon doesn't have to squelch diversity the same way traditional distribution channels do.

    Many people prefer things that Amazon can't deliver: browsing through a local shop, getting to know the shopkeeper and staff, maybe even bartering something one can make or do for books. These are things you can't get from Amazon– and as long as there are people who prefer these things over the things that Amazon does well, there will always be shops to satisfy their preferences. Because there are no regulations or mandates that require you to buy from a certain retailer, you can buy from any or all of them. While the competition from Amazon may help some retailers realize they can't deliver enough value to their customers to maintain their business, others will accept the challenge and rise to the occasion, getting better at identifying and satisfying the unique needs of their clients so well that they can't even imagine using an impersonal online retailer.

    This is keeping with the Quaker revelation of an egalitarian community without archons, in which anyone may offer their creative work at a fair price. The so-called "competition" from other businesses creates a pressure for better service, more transparency, and lower prices– which means no longer excluding the poor from the life and culture enjoyed by the rich, bit by bit.

  4. I boycotted Walmart for over ten years before I realized how much it has improved life for the poor, overall. This is a big deal to me, since I grew up poor– sometimes without shoes, electricity or hot water –and I feel impelled to repudiate the myths entertained by middle-class and upper-middle-class lefties (all of whom I regard as "rich") that those were simpler times. Wearing shoes that looked like they barely survived a nuclear blast to school was humiliating, and had there been a Walmart in town exerting pressure on everyone toward lower prices, I probably could have worn cheap shoes that were less demeaning.

    By advocating a boycott on successful retailers that exert competitive pressure toward better service or lower prices, one inadvertently advocates both the homogenization or exclusion of offbeat culture (like Quaker literature), and the exclusion of the poor from the life and culture enjoyed by the rich, like books and shoes. As someone whose conscience I hold in regard, I don't think that's what you really want at all.

    I'd say what you really want are retailers and services that deliver more on values that Amazon can't serve– is that right? Just remember that not all retailers can afford the shelf-space for the multitude of magnificent and diverse cultural works that you can get from Amazon– including Jim Corbett's _Goatwalking_ and _Sanctuary for All Life_; and not everyone can afford to buy from the shops that might satisfy your more refined palate.

    Anyway, no way am I going to stop following you on Twitter for offering this. Thanks for all you do, and may your Christmas be blessed.

    loving regards.

    1. Hi John, this is to both your points. I will post your quotes first and then offer some brief responses:

      "Amazon and Walmart didn’t just open and shop and offer their products to voluntary customers; they “destroyed” local business!"

      I am arguing for culpability – maybe not initially when they opened but now, yes. I am basing this on research as well as personal experience of being a book buyer for a small independent bookshop. If you haven't read my previous post I encourage you too. It may not change your mind, but it will at least give you a little background to my thinking/experience on the subject. http://gatheringinlight.com/2008/06/08/boycotting

      "But that’s just not true. Amazon is successful not because they have a strategy to destroy others, but because *many people prefer Amazon’s service*– through voluntary exchange, on the whole, people value Amazon more than they value the store that went out of business. It’s not because they are doing something dishonest, fraudulent, or coercive; it’s because they have taken a risk and applied creativity to develop new ways to identify and satisfy people’s preferences."

      I differ on this point for two reasons – I doubt people simply prefer the service, I tend to think it is more because they prefer the uncommonly low prices and this is one of the problems I have. In fact, I do think Amazon is coercive in its practices.

      Here are a few links for information I personally find compelling: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/03/books/03mica.ht

      The quote I'm drawing on is:
      “The other crisis for independent booksellers, Mr. Fox said, is the current state of publishing. The job of building writers’ reputations and nurturing them has fallen to agents, he said. Publishers are concerned only with the bottom line, he added, looking for the home run instead of the single.”

      Publishers are to blame as well, interested more in a bottom line approach, they will often stop at nothing to get the most bang for their buck. I (morally) disagree with this approach, and invite others to imagine scenarios where we can interact with capitalism in a way that doesn't simply build on this. Surely, this was not the business practices of early Quakers either.

      The more pressing issue deals with the predatory practices of Amazon and others. Because of their size they can push the smaller places around. It's like how Wal-Mart put Rubbermaid out of business because it would not give them the prices they wanted: "you sell for this or we don't sell your product" is persuasive when it comes from an Amazon or Wal-Mart. They stopped selling Rubbermaid because they wouldn't cooperate and bam, the small town where that factory was in Ohio is devastated. This is a problem in my view. I am not comfortable with corporations having this kind of power in the market and therefore I am choosing to not give them my business.

      The same is true for Amazon. Recently, the Board of Directors of the American Booksellers Association has requested that the department of Justice step in and investigate what is being considered predatory practices ( that the http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2009… This isn't the first time people have challenge Amazon on this point (see my previous boycott post), but it is still happening. This isn't a sign of a successful business in my mind.

      1. Sorry it took me a while to get back to this. I'm grateful for your engaged response.

        > I doubt people simply prefer the service, I tend to think it is more because they prefer the uncommonly low prices and this is one of the problems I have. In fact, I do think Amazon is coercive in its practices.
        >
        > The quote I'm drawing on is…

        I can't access the article, and I don't see how the quote you presented here has anything to do with your argument.

        > I doubt people simply prefer the service, I tend to think it is more because they prefer the uncommonly low prices…

        Price is one point that can make a service more preferable, especially for the poor. Let me put it in concrete terms: I have a nine-year-old daughter, whom I enjoy spending time with a whole lot. Let's say I get paid ten dollars per hour at a regular job (in reality, I'm a self-employed web developer, which means I don't get paid for every hour I spend managing projects and training myself). If I could buy a book for $35 from a local indy bookseller, or get it from Amazon for $25, the savings equals one hour of my life that I can spend with my daughter rather than at work. Even if I love my work, my coworkers, the company I work for, et cetera, the time I spend with my daughter is infinitely more humanizing and fulfilling for us both.

        The price we are willing to pay is *certainly* one of the factors we use to express our values, and people at lower income levels are sensitive to finer differences in price. I'm in that group.

        > [Amazon's] uncommonly low prices… is one of the problems I have.

        I see that, but I'm not clear why. If you have your customer's best interest in mind, you must appreciate that lower prices signify greater opportunities to enjoy life. The price your are willing to pay represents, in a very concrete way, the opportunities that you are willing to sacrifice for a thing.

        Price and opportunity cost aren't the only dimension of value that is important to customers. The success of Whole Foods Market demonstrates that some people are willing to pay more for natural foods, healthy foods, and artisan foods. People have a whole lot of different values. Entrepreneurs and retailers who can't compete on price have to make a different value proposition to their customers, and sometimes educate their customers on why values like healthy food are important. Indy bookstores, for instance, must persuade customers that their service, ambiance, personnel, culture, or something else is unique and worthy of their attention. And they have to deliver on those promises– any time a company takes a stand and educates customers on its core values, customers will hold that company to a higher standard.

        But if what you're selling is a comodity– "books", not superior service; "books", not ambiance; "books", not personality; "books", not a unique culture –then you shouldn't be surprised if people coordinate to the lowest price and you can no longer afford to stay in business. If you can truly deliver enough value to customers that they choose your service over the lower price– that is, if you have a *brand* –you are no longer selling a commodity.

        I utterly reject the idea that offering low prices is immoral. Innovation that lowers price makes the poor richer.

  5. +1 on Johan's and @johnstephen's comments.

    I'm leery of conflating Amazon.com and WalMart. Amazon certainly has faults, but it's a world apart from the cutthroat pricing tactics of WalMart buyers (not shoppers). To equate them seems a stretch. For starters, Amazon is as much a marketplace as a virtual store. One of our local bookstores actually did quite a booming business reselling used books on Amazon. And through their various initiatives (mechanical turk, A3 storage, etc), Amazon is leveraging their size to the benefit of a great many small businesses. That makes it tough for me to demonize them as a simple "WalMat of the Internet." By helping small businesses succeed, Amazon is precisely the opposite of WalMart.

    Good points about being careful re: "need" vs "want" and shopping locally, though. I think shopping local is vitally important (including locally grown food). Once you've determined to purchase something, and it's not available locally ("locally" meaning "the town in which you live"), which is worse: having UPS deliver it to your doorstep, or driving out to the next town/mall/whatever to look for it? It's a trick question. I think there's no difference between the options, aside from the time available to pursue the purchase. Personally, I figure my time is worth something, and I'd rather spend it with my family than driving around in pursuit of [whatever].

    Anyway, your post was good food for thought. Best of luck with the boycott. :-)

    1. Bzo – thanks for the comment. If you read above, you'll see why at least I am comparing them. The reasons are the predatory practices as well as the poor conditions to name a few. You may find this article interesting: http://flcenterlitarts.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/w

      Your second question is great and something I honestly struggle with. I have stuff shipped to our door plenty, and then sometimes I enjoy taking a trip with the family to get what we need. I think it really depends for me on whether or not we can make the trip fun for the kids and turn a chore into something family oriented. This isn't always the case, but it's nice when it happens.

    2. Bzo – thanks for the comment. If you read above, you'll see why at least I am comparing them. The reasons are the predatory practices as well as the poor conditions to name a few. You may find this article interesting: http://flcenterlitarts.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/w

      Your second question is great and something I honestly struggle with. I have stuff shipped to our door plenty, and then sometimes I enjoy taking a trip with the family to get what we need. I think it really depends for me on whether or not we can make the trip fun for the kids and turn a chore into something family oriented. This isn't always the case, but it's nice when it happens.

    3. Bzo – thanks for the comment. If you read above, you'll see why at least I am comparing them. The reasons are the predatory practices as well as the poor conditions to name a few. You may find this article interesting: http://flcenterlitarts.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/w

      Your second question is great and something I honestly struggle with. I have stuff shipped to our door plenty, and then sometimes I enjoy taking a trip with the family to get what we need. I think it really depends for me on whether or not we can make the trip fun for the kids and turn a chore into something family oriented. This isn't always the case, but it's nice when it happens.

    4. Bzo – thanks for the comment. If you read above, you'll see why at least I am comparing them. The reasons are the predatory practices as well as the poor conditions to name a few. You may find this article interesting: http://flcenterlitarts.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/w

      Your second question is great and something I honestly struggle with. I have stuff shipped to our door plenty, and then sometimes I enjoy taking a trip with the family to get what we need. I think it really depends for me on whether or not we can make the trip fun for the kids and turn a chore into something family oriented. This isn't always the case, but it's nice when it happens.

  6. I agree on your discussion of preferences, there are great things about Amazon and other web-stores, etc. There are lots of helpful things about web-stores, and I want to make sure everyone reading knows that I do shop online, but I am bringing up questions about where we do this and inviting some creativity in how we choose where we spend our money (and if we spend it at all!).

    "That means bookstores for the general public will carry only the books most likely to penetrate the short-attention-span awareness of mainstream culture: the next Twilight, Harry Potter, Sarah Palin, or whatever else is capturing the popular imagination, for good or ill."

    The problem is because of Amazon's unfair low prices small stores will not even be able to do (see this NY Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/books/17price.h

    "The genius of Amazon is that it eliminates this pressure toward homogenization of the stock toward pop-culture; the marginal cost of adding shelf-space for one or a hundred more books to a bookstore is prohibitive, but the marginal cost of adding one or a trillion more links to Amazon is miniscule. Therefore, Amazon doesn’t have to squelch diversity the same way traditional distribution channels do."

    I disagree that it doesn’t homogenize, maybe not in the same way but it is still happening: it does so through capital, rather than choice. I’ve worked at niche bookshops in the past, they are online, diversity is available, maybe not all under one roof, maybe it requires a little more work on our part, but is that a bad thing?

    "While the competition from Amazon may help some retailers realize they can’t deliver enough value to their customers to maintain their business, others will accept the challenge and rise to the occasion, getting better at identifying and satisfying the unique needs of their clients so well that they can’t even imagine using an impersonal online retailer."

    I wish it were this simple, rising above, but it’s not. I hope that my points above about the problems that sweetheart deals (previous post) and predatory practices these stores utilize show that it isn't quite this easy. Many of these stores just cannot compete if we continue to choose to go for "lowest is best."

    I don’t think a fair price, and a low price are equal. I think it is too much to rely on the competition of other business to moralize the system, I’m calling for people to respond in another way. Yes, it may make somethings better, but lower prices don’t always equal better. Often, lower prices are at the expense of the poor. We know this by the creation of sweatshops, etc.

    "I boycotted Walmart for over ten years before I realized how much it has improved life for the poor, overall. This is a big deal to me, since I grew up poor– sometimes without shoes, electricity or hot water –and I feel impelled to repudiate the myths entertained by middle-class and upper-middle-class lefties (all of whom I regard as “rich”) that those were simpler times. Wearing shoes that looked like they barely survived a nuclear blast to school was humiliating, and had there been a Walmart in town exerting pressure on everyone toward lower prices, I probably could have worn cheap shoes that were less demeaning."

    I appreciate this point and recognize the personal quality to it. But I don't think you should consider me middle-class leftie either. I come a very similar background (we grew up on thrift store and k-mart clothes and our house of 8 lived on $12,000 a year) and my lifestyle is constantly under negotiation with the kinds of things I am suggesting in the post above. While I am not a plain-dressing Quaker, I take very seriously the testimony of plainness and have sought to incorporate it into my life in every way possible (and will continue to struggle with this testimony). But I really think this is a double-edge sword, yes maybe Wal-Mart puts shoes on people's feet who would have had to get those shoes from a thrift store instead (though there really are lots of stores that are not Wal-Mart that sell affordable shoes – my typical shoe costs me $20-25). These shoes are in fact being made on the backs of the poor in other countries, and sold by the poor in our communities who work at Wal-Mart making $6 an hour in pretty crummy conditions. Yes, the job is better than no job, but I am aiming for better standards here. A boycott of these places isn't in exclusion to the poor, it is precisely because of this difficult issue. I am tired of hearing about the poor business practices, not just of the book industry, or clothing industry, but also our industrial farming industry (cf. Food INC.), and all the other industries that we live off of. This is my way of responding to this crisis, in the same way that I shop at our farmer's market and try to support the farmer down the street, rather than going to the box store where I can buy that produce (with loads of chemicals on it, which was grown in a factory, with poor wages) for half the price.

  7. I agree on your discussion of preferences, there are great things about Amazon and other web-stores, etc. There are lots of helpful things about web-stores, and I want to make sure everyone reading knows that I do shop online, but I am bringing up questions about where we do this and inviting some creativity in how we choose where we spend our money (and if we spend it at all!).

    "That means bookstores for the general public will carry only the books most likely to penetrate the short-attention-span awareness of mainstream culture: the next Twilight, Harry Potter, Sarah Palin, or whatever else is capturing the popular imagination, for good or ill."

    The problem is because of Amazon's unfair low prices small stores will not even be able to do (see this NY Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/books/17price.h

    "The genius of Amazon is that it eliminates this pressure toward homogenization of the stock toward pop-culture; the marginal cost of adding shelf-space for one or a hundred more books to a bookstore is prohibitive, but the marginal cost of adding one or a trillion more links to Amazon is miniscule. Therefore, Amazon doesn’t have to squelch diversity the same way traditional distribution channels do."

    I disagree that it doesn’t homogenize, maybe not in the same way but it is still happening: it does so through capital, rather than choice. I’ve worked at niche bookshops in the past, they are online, diversity is available, maybe not all under one roof, maybe it requires a little more work on our part, but is that a bad thing?

    "While the competition from Amazon may help some retailers realize they can’t deliver enough value to their customers to maintain their business, others will accept the challenge and rise to the occasion, getting better at identifying and satisfying the unique needs of their clients so well that they can’t even imagine using an impersonal online retailer."

    I wish it were this simple, rising above, but it’s not. I hope that my points above about the problems that sweetheart deals (previous post) and predatory practices these stores utilize show that it isn't quite this easy. Many of these stores just cannot compete if we continue to choose to go for "lowest is best."

    I don’t think a fair price, and a low price are equal. I think it is too much to rely on the competition of other business to moralize the system, I’m calling for people to respond in another way. Yes, it may make somethings better, but lower prices don’t always equal better. Often, lower prices are at the expense of the poor. We know this by the creation of sweatshops, etc.

    "I boycotted Walmart for over ten years before I realized how much it has improved life for the poor, overall. This is a big deal to me, since I grew up poor– sometimes without shoes, electricity or hot water –and I feel impelled to repudiate the myths entertained by middle-class and upper-middle-class lefties (all of whom I regard as “rich”) that those were simpler times. Wearing shoes that looked like they barely survived a nuclear blast to school was humiliating, and had there been a Walmart in town exerting pressure on everyone toward lower prices, I probably could have worn cheap shoes that were less demeaning."

    I appreciate this point and recognize the personal quality to it. But I don't think you should consider me middle-class leftie either. I come a very similar background (we grew up on thrift store and k-mart clothes and our house of 8 lived on $12,000 a year) and my lifestyle is constantly under negotiation with the kinds of things I am suggesting in the post above. While I am not a plain-dressing Quaker, I take very seriously the testimony of plainness and have sought to incorporate it into my life in every way possible (and will continue to struggle with this testimony). But I really think this is a double-edge sword, yes maybe Wal-Mart puts shoes on people's feet who would have had to get those shoes from a thrift store instead (though there really are lots of stores that are not Wal-Mart that sell affordable shoes – my typical shoe costs me $20-25). These shoes are in fact being made on the backs of the poor in other countries, and sold by the poor in our communities who work at Wal-Mart making $6 an hour in pretty crummy conditions. Yes, the job is better than no job, but I am aiming for better standards here. A boycott of these places isn't in exclusion to the poor, it is precisely because of this difficult issue. I am tired of hearing about the poor business practices, not just of the book industry, or clothing industry, but also our industrial farming industry (cf. Food INC.), and all the other industries that we live off of. This is my way of responding to this crisis, in the same way that I shop at our farmer's market and try to support the farmer down the street, rather than going to the box store where I can buy that produce (with loads of chemicals on it, which was grown in a factory, with poor wages) for half the price.

  8. "By advocating a boycott on successful retailers that exert competitive pressure toward better service or lower prices, one inadvertently advocates both the homogenization or exclusion of offbeat culture (like Quaker literature), and the exclusion of the poor from the life and culture enjoyed by the rich, like books and shoes. As someone whose conscience I hold in regard, I don’t think that’s what you really want at all."

    I am sure that you are aware of the immense struggles that the Quaker publishing and book industry is in. I have helped consult with Barclay Press on the future of their bookshop and publishing business and they will be the first to tell you that Amazon is not helping the "offbeat culture." There will be vastly less Quaker books if the Quaker publishers all go down. Friends United Press has already had to face their fate.

    Concerning the offbeat culture, I found this interesting article that shows that maybe even Amazon is hurting certain genre's that don't sell well — http://www.bookstorepeople.com/2009/04/amazon-mis

    Anyways, I really appreciate the points you bring up and I hope this doesn't come off to strong. I felt it necessary to respond to most of your points because I felt they were really valid discussion pieces. Obviously, there is a lot to all of this and it won't be settled here.

    What I am calling for is a Christmas that is free of the "lowest possible prices" so we can get "the most amount of things" mentality. I am inviting people to practice some creativity in where they spend their money and how they spend it. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, and in fact, I think it might actually help wake people up to our slumbering consumption.

  9. "By advocating a boycott on successful retailers that exert competitive pressure toward better service or lower prices, one inadvertently advocates both the homogenization or exclusion of offbeat culture (like Quaker literature), and the exclusion of the poor from the life and culture enjoyed by the rich, like books and shoes. As someone whose conscience I hold in regard, I don’t think that’s what you really want at all."

    I am sure that you are aware of the immense struggles that the Quaker publishing and book industry is in. I have helped consult with Barclay Press on the future of their bookshop and publishing business and they will be the first to tell you that Amazon is not helping the "offbeat culture." There will be vastly less Quaker books if the Quaker publishers all go down. Friends United Press has already had to face their fate.

    Concerning the offbeat culture, I found this interesting article that shows that maybe even Amazon is hurting certain genre's that don't sell well — http://www.bookstorepeople.com/2009/04/amazon-mis

    Anyways, I really appreciate the points you bring up and I hope this doesn't come off to strong. I felt it necessary to respond to most of your points because I felt they were really valid discussion pieces. Obviously, there is a lot to all of this and it won't be settled here.

    What I am calling for is a Christmas that is free of the "lowest possible prices" so we can get "the most amount of things" mentality. I am inviting people to practice some creativity in where they spend their money and how they spend it. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, and in fact, I think it might actually help wake people up to our slumbering consumption.

  10. "By advocating a boycott on successful retailers that exert competitive pressure toward better service or lower prices, one inadvertently advocates both the homogenization or exclusion of offbeat culture (like Quaker literature), and the exclusion of the poor from the life and culture enjoyed by the rich, like books and shoes. As someone whose conscience I hold in regard, I don’t think that’s what you really want at all."

    I am sure that you are aware of the immense struggles that the Quaker publishing and book industry is in. I have helped consult with Barclay Press on the future of their bookshop and publishing business and they will be the first to tell you that Amazon is not helping the "offbeat culture." There will be vastly less Quaker books if the Quaker publishers all go down. Friends United Press has already had to face their fate.

    Concerning the offbeat culture, I found this interesting article that shows that maybe even Amazon is hurting certain genre's that don't sell well — http://www.bookstorepeople.com/2009/04/amazon-mis

    Anyways, I really appreciate the points you bring up and I hope this doesn't come off to strong. I felt it necessary to respond to most of your points because I felt they were really valid discussion pieces. Obviously, there is a lot to all of this and it won't be settled here.

    What I am calling for is a Christmas that is free of the "lowest possible prices" so we can get "the most amount of things" mentality. I am inviting people to practice some creativity in where they spend their money and how they spend it. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, and in fact, I think it might actually help wake people up to our slumbering consumption.

  11. "By advocating a boycott on successful retailers that exert competitive pressure toward better service or lower prices, one inadvertently advocates both the homogenization or exclusion of offbeat culture (like Quaker literature), and the exclusion of the poor from the life and culture enjoyed by the rich, like books and shoes. As someone whose conscience I hold in regard, I don’t think that’s what you really want at all."

    I am sure that you are aware of the immense struggles that the Quaker publishing and book industry is in. I have helped consult with Barclay Press on the future of their bookshop and publishing business and they will be the first to tell you that Amazon is not helping the "offbeat culture." There will be vastly less Quaker books if the Quaker publishers all go down. Friends United Press has already had to face their fate.

    Concerning the offbeat culture, I found this interesting article that shows that maybe even Amazon is hurting certain genre's that don't sell well — http://www.bookstorepeople.com/2009/04/amazon-mis

    Anyways, I really appreciate the points you bring up and I hope this doesn't come off to strong. I felt it necessary to respond to most of your points because I felt they were really valid discussion pieces. Obviously, there is a lot to all of this and it won't be settled here.

    What I am calling for is a Christmas that is free of the "lowest possible prices" so we can get "the most amount of things" mentality. I am inviting people to practice some creativity in where they spend their money and how they spend it. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, and in fact, I think it might actually help wake people up to our slumbering consumption.

  12. Do you have any thoughts on alibris.com or ebay’s half.com? Those were the other sites that The Archives would go through in addition to amazon and abebooks when I was working there.

    Also do you follow abebooks on twitter? Perhaps you could get their take on things through contacting them on there.

    All in all though, there is a lot to chew on. I am a fairly regular amazon user, but will be reconsidering my own usage onward.

    Thanks Wess!

  13. Great post, Wess. I purchased some gifts this year from Etsy.com or friends who make handmade items. I also use Equal Exchange for fair trade coffee – it's an amazing cooperative run organization.

  14. So, reading this post was the final step in convincing me that I should get rid of amazon links for Jesus manifesto. I decided to start linking to ABE books, and quickly tried to enroll in their affiliates program. For some reason, their program is pretty complicated, and so I began to look around on the web for some sort of helpful pointers on how to make it work. It was through that search that I found out the following: http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/perm

    1. Mark, I'm glad to that this was a final straw for you. I know it took me sometime to wrestle with all this as well. I would recommend powell's affiliate program, it's easy to setup and use and as far as I know Amazon doesn't own them yet.

      And BTW thanks for spoiling my morning with that link! I'm doing the thing where Colbert looks to his right, holds up his fist and yells NOOOOOOO!!!!!

      In all honesty, what do you think? (And others chime in as well, please). Not knowing Amazon owned them, I really like that ABE is basically a craigslist for indie booksellers. So it is supporting the people I want to support, but I am not happy about Amazon getting any of my money. Is a boycott on Amazon equal to its affiliate sites and to what extent? I'm willing to say yes, because there are still more OPTIONS out there, this is after all the Worldwide Web. But of course, Amazon could conceivably continue to shorten the list, thus proving my point as to why I want to boycott them in the blog post above even more.

      Anyways, thanks for the comment.

    2. Mark, I'm glad to that this was a final straw for you. I know it took me sometime to wrestle with all this as well. I would recommend powell's affiliate program, it's easy to setup and use and as far as I know Amazon doesn't own them yet.

      And BTW thanks for spoiling my morning with that link! I'm doing the thing where Colbert looks to his right, holds up his fist and yells NOOOOOOO!!!!!

      In all honesty, what do you think? (And others chime in as well, please). Not knowing Amazon owned them, I really like that ABE is basically a craigslist for indie booksellers. So it is supporting the people I want to support, but I am not happy about Amazon getting any of my money. Is a boycott on Amazon equal to its affiliate sites and to what extent? I'm willing to say yes, because there are still more OPTIONS out there, this is after all the Worldwide Web. But of course, Amazon could conceivably continue to shorten the list, thus proving my point as to why I want to boycott them in the blog post above even more.

      Anyways, thanks for the comment.

  15. I certainly agree with you about larger companies destroying the smaller ones. I have been travelling all over Central America for the past few years and it is so sad to see so many small business boarded up because larger ones have taken over. For example, I am in Guatemala right now and McDonalds just opened up for the first time in the town I am in. Already other smaller traditional places have begun losing business over it. We can boycott these huge chains, but in the end it could be better to try to help those who are suffering because of it. A few people not eating McDonalds is not going to make that restaurant close, but we can get to know the smaller store owners and help them any way we can, even if just emotionally or praying for them.

  16. > Wal-Mart put Rubbermaid out of business because it would not give them the prices they wanted…

    This argument makes Walmart responsible for the business failure of *every* product they don't carry. I used to draw and publish my own comics. Walmart refused to sell them because their customer's weren't willing to pay even what it cost for me to print them. Fie on Walmart.

    Seriously though, sometimes companies *agree* that they won't do business together. When people and businesses trade, they often reach a symbiotic harmony that makes all parties better off– but if they can't find such a harmony, a Win-Win, it is morally better to have "no deal". The alternative is a Win-Lose deal (like a compromise, or outright competition, over some limited value) which is alway a Lose-Lose deal in the long run.

    In your Walmart scenario, Rubbermaid could have lowered their price to reach an agreement. Or Walmart could have raised the price they expected customers to pay. Advocating either of those is asking someone to take a bigger risk than they were willing to take. The risk to Rubbermaid is similar to the outcome you described: if they lower their prices, they would have to lower their costs. For Walmart, higher prices risks tying up resources in unsold stock, resources they could use for compensation, benefits, training, or lower-priced products that would sell better.

    Walmart makes no bones about being the place to get commodities, and they compete strictly on price. Walmart has no brand, and does not attempt to compete in any other dimension of value. That is an honest position, which they deliver on. People and vendors who do business with Walmart understand that.

    I think Walmart does scummy immoral things– things that lead to real coercion –but this example of failing to reach a mutually-beneficial agreement isn't on the list. It would be a moral problem if parties were forced into agreements against their will, and forced to take on risk that they were unwilling to take.

    1. > Many of these stores just cannot compete if we continue to choose to go for "lowest is best."
      >
      > I don’t think a fair price, and a low price are equal.

      You're right about these things: customer's, individually, decide a fair price by what they are willing to pay– which is a symbol of the personal opportunity cost they are willing to endure. Entrepreneurs and vendors decide a fair price by how much they are willing to sell for– which is related to their opportunity costs. These behaviors concatenate system-wide to form a normal price for a given service at a given time, but there is always wide variation.

      Like I said above, not everyone makes all their decisions based on lowest price. I'm writing this on a MacBook instead of a Dell. I just chose a Christmas gift from Nova Naturals instead of Amazon (aside: dude, I think you would love Nova Naturals stuff for your kid); people buy Tom's of Maine toothpaste instead of Colgate. There are many dimensions of value, and I have no problem with people making choices based on dimensions of value other than price.

      > I think it is too much to rely on the competition of other business to moralize the system, I’m calling for people to respond in another way. Yes, it may make somethings better, but lower prices don’t always equal better.

      You're right that we can't coun't on competition to create morality. Only by exercising moral choices can we grow morality in our society. But so far, I don't agree that your boycott of Amazon is based on Amazon's morality. I think it's definitely an expression of your preferences, identity, and values– and choosing those things over price is moral.

      Furthermore, by "calling for people to respond" to a value other than price, you're either addressing yourself to those for whom price is not an issue– the comfortably rich, or privileged –or expecting the poor to live like the rich even if they can't afford it.

      > Often, lower prices are at the expense of the poor. We know this by the creation of sweatshops, etc.

      Sweatshops that use press-gangs or coercion to get and keep employees must be utterly deplored and uprooted. But sweatshops based on voluntary employment arrangements may make the poor better off– giving non-knowledge workers an economic opportunity and a chance to learn skills. Anyway, if people aren't being forced by violence or the threat of violence to work at a crappy place, then they are doing so of their own free will based on rational choice, and we have to respect that.

      1. > I don't think you should consider me middle-class leftie either.

        I apologize for not being more clear: I wasn't talking about you, and in retrospect, it was a vague generalization that had no place in my comment. The problem is that these issues churn up my own latent class stress– I'm pretty sensitve about the being poor and what people think will help the poor.

        1. > (…there really are lots of stores that are not Wal-Mart that sell affordable shoes – my typical shoe costs me $20-25)

          The point I was making is that Walmart exerts downward pressure on the price of shoes. If you're selling shoes as a commodity, then you have to keep your price comparable with Walmart. The fact that you can get good shoes for a low price is proof of concept.

          > …yes maybe Wal-Mart puts shoes on people's feet who would have had to get those shoes from a thrift store instead… These shoes are in fact being made on the backs of the poor in other countries, and sold by the poor in our communities who work at Wal-Mart making $6 an hour in pretty crummy conditions.

          In *this* country, no one is forced to work at Walmart. If you choose to work there for $6/hr, you are probably comparing it to less desirable opportunities and making a rational choice. I don't like Walmart, but I don't know of any stores that employ slave labor or use violence to keep wages low.

          I am far more critical of Walmart's role in colluding with government, whether at the local or national level, to get regulations that adversely affect honest competition against them. Getting the state to enforce your preferences through the implied threat of force, which is always implied with the state, IS coercive and immoral. (Parenthetically, I find that most progressives, including progressive Quakers, are okay with legally enforcing their preferences– willfully ignorant of the implied threat of violence; this is illiberal and unFriendly.)

        2. > Yes, the job is better than no job, but I am aiming for better standards here.

          But you can't force the poor to adopt your standards. If you get Walmart to increase its internal minimum wage to $12/hr, all those jobs that they used to pay people $6/hr for will be eliminated. The people they might have hired for $6/hr will now be unemployable (by Walmart), since Walmart would now be giving jobs only to employees whose experience and skill set Walmart valued at $12/hr. Meanwhile, there would at least thousands of unemployed people willing to work for $6/hr, for whom $6/hr would be better than the "better standards".

          > This is my way of responding to this crisis, in the same way that I shop at our farmer's market and try to support the farmer down the street, rather than going to the box store where I can buy that produce (with loads of chemicals on it, which was grown in a factory, with poor wages) for half the price.

          That way of responding to the crisis is good for those who can afford it: pay more to get better quality. Again, calling others to do so is either a call to the fellow-privileged or a call for the poor to live beyond their means.

        3. > There will be vastly less Quaker books if the Quaker publishers all go down. Friends United Press has already had to face their fate.

          I agree. I think the most relevant remedy to this is evangelism, not boycott. I'm a liberal Friend, among whom evangelism is a bad word. I often tell Friends that "I've been granted an indulgence to proselytize."

          My point isn't that we need to make more converts in order to sell more Quaker books, but that we need to build the Quaker "brand"– our identity, our ideals, our vision, and most of all our process and practice –in mainstream consciousness. The consequence to dread isn't that our publishing house will fold, but that our meetings will go the way of the Shakers. Losing our publishing houses is just a bit of advance warning.

        4. > What I am calling for is a Christmas that is free of the "lowest possible prices" so we can get "the most amount of things" mentality. I am inviting people to practice some creativity in where they spend their money and how they spend it. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, and in fact, I think it might actually help wake people up to our slumbering consumption.

          I totally agree with this. Not only should we spend creatively, but we should also *create* creatively– exercise personal, social, cultural, and spiritual entrepreneurship to understand the real needs of our neighbors and communities, and apply love and creativity to address them in a more holistic way.

          Obviously Amazon and Walmart leave much to be desired. We can criticize by creating. Create products, processes, systems, and institutions that fulfill human needs and build us up into better, more fully human, people, and more fully humanized communities. That's my calling to every entrepreneur, peacebuilder, and Friend. Just start on the scale where you are.

          "Our central concern is to do justice rather than to petition others to do it."

          And no offense taken on stating your response strongly. The quality of dialogue is bolstered by people being direct and clear, rather than mealy-mouthed. I appreciate it.

  17. Thanks for your thoughtful response. We need to be discerning customers in any case. Discipleship includes our economic behavior as well as all the other ways we try to put God in the center. We need to think about how our transactions affect the world. You're absolutely right to ask us to consider working conditions, for example. Predatory, monopolistic, or deceptive practices would also fall into that category.

    A company like Amazon.com needs to be subjected to this kind of reflection. But consider this: their very size makes them a more convenient target for critical scrutiny. I doubt that every small bookstore or general store treats its employees better than Amazon.com, or is more environmentally friendly. Small businesses are exempt from some regulations that apply to large businesses. Small businesses have many inherent inefficiencies. Customers need to balance the supposed virtues of a small or local business with these inefficiencies, and make a thoughtful choice–and at times that choice will not favor the local business.

    When I'm within the orbit of a local bookstore, I go there gladly. But it's interesting–the bookstores I visit are also gathering places with coffee and tea and pastries, comfortable seating, and friendly staff. Amazon.com can't possibly compete with these features. (I'm thinking of stores in Newberg, Oregon, and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Portland.)

    But when I wanted a specific American history textbook to use in Russia (this is a true story) whose list price is over $100, I got copies for $1 plus shipping through Amazon.com's used book network. Their size and reach made this possible. This was a reasonable tradeoff. At the same time, I got copies of Howard Zinn's U.S. history text from Powell's, not Amazon, because at Powell's I could compare the various editions and make an eyeball choice between cheap (older) and more expensive (more current). Powell's, too, could not have offered me that scope of choice without being huge–although of course not on Amazon's scale.

    Amazon's business model depends on dependably making huge numbers of modest sales to a near-global market, whereas Chapter's Books (Newberg) provides an experience of hospitality and ideal conditions for physical browsing to those within a reasonable distance. They can't be compared. (And this is also a completely different model than Wal-Mart's, by the way.)

    As for almost-Amazons who might serve that global book market more ethically, they still need to earn credibility by doing what Amazon does as reliably or by proposing new and compelling standards of their own, rather than hoping that we get suspicious of their successful competitors.

    I've worked in three bookstores, and all three of them have now closed–and for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Amazon.com. I think the issue of choosing between an Amazon-like business to buy books, or choosing a smaller outlet with physical access, is a somewhat different issue from Amazon's virtues or sins as a corporate citizen. We're always on the hook to apply our discernment in any case; to me, the issues are: Is the business transparent? And, does it do what it says it will do?

  18. This is one of the first such posts i replied Great post, Wess. I purchased some gifts this year from Etsy.com or friends who make handmade items. I also use Equal Exchange for fair trade coffee – it's an amazing cooperative run organization.

    Freedy
    http://www.youthforjesus.com

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