Amazon Takes on Quakerism?

Some of the Basics*

Amazon is one of those companies that’s kind of off-limits for the typical American consumer. I mean, who owns a computer and hasn’t purchased at least one thing from Amazon? I know I have. And who can argue with such a “successful” business model? After-all, shouldn’t we capitalists encourage this kind of economic triumphalism? Amazon proves that capitalism still “works,” at least for some. And who doesn’t want to save money on a book, you’d could buy down the street at the local bookshop for $10 more? A number of years ago, when I was still using the “service” I used to make decent money selling my used books and getting ad-revenue from their site. So I get it, I understand why people are drawn to it.

Yet, is just like the big bully who continues to use his size and wealth to push around the little people. In my book, bullying of any kind, whether on the playground or in capitalist economics, is not okay. For instance, Amazon has been cited for its ill-treatment of its employees and has been critiqued as one of the main causes for crushing local-economies (specially in relation to bookstores). It was also caught encouraging its smartphone app users to go into their local stores, scan prices on items they wanted to buy, and then purchase those same items at Amazon.com for a discounted price. This was like the wolf just pulling the sheep’s clothing off and taking a more direct approach to gathering sheep. It confirmed very blatantly many people’s sneaking suspicions that Amazon was after local economies. And all of this is not to mention the fact that Amazon has been known to be anti-union see here, here and here, which is a very big deal for me.** And there are plenty of other reasons to boycott Amazon offered as well. Amazon signifies what the world looks like under the new Wal-Martization economic plan.

As poverty activist Willie Baptist says,

Either we’re dealing with a teddy bear or we’re dealing with a grizzly bear, and either estimate will determine your set of tactics, your organizing approach. If you think you’re dealing with a teddy bear and in reality it’s a grizzly bear coming at you, you’re going to be in trouble. So this estimate of the situation is absolutely crucial to the process Link.

Not only is Amazon a grizzly, but it’s a hungry grizzly that keeps getting stronger.

Coming At Quakers

But now our not-so-friendly Grizzly has hit an new low and this time it’s going after the Quakers.

Recently, the Oregonian reported that Amazon has been employing
Dynamic Pricing which is a euphemism for bait-and-switch pricing (even if it is legal). The Oregonian writes:

She browsed Amazon.com and, after sifting through several pages of options, settled on a set for $54.99. She placed it in her virtual basket and continued shopping for some scorecards and game accessories. A few minutes later, she scanned the cart and noticed the $54.99 had jumped to $70.99.

Plumlee thought she was going crazy. She checked her computer’s viewing history and, indeed, the game’s original price was listed at $54.99. Determined, she cleared out the cart and tried again, first loading the cards and accessories into the cart, then adding the game and clicking checkout. That’s when the game’s price jumped from $54.99 to $59.99.

And while this is shady enough, it gets worse:

Although consumers say such price revisions feel like bait-and-switch, they’re entirely legal. And Amazon’s not alone. Not only do prices move up and down on a regular basis, but also they’re often adjusted based on exactly which customer is mulling a purchase.

The practice, called price customization or dynamic pricing, weighs factors as it sets prices such as a customer’s income, buying habits, or the popularity of an item on a given day.

This was the part that really caught me by surprise. This is none other than sizing-up their clients before to determine just how much that customer should pay for a product.

And if any of you know something about Quaker history you’ll know that this is a direct affront to a practice Quakers put in place hundreds of years ago: fixed price-tags.

As Ben Pink Dandelion writes:

As well as closing their shops on Wednesdays and Sundays, when Quakers came together in worship, and opening them on Christmas day if that fell on neither a Wednesday or a Sunday [When they gathered for worship], Quaker traders bought and sold at fixed prices rather than haggle. This was an unusual practice but reflected their testimony to truth and integrity. Indeed, in the way many Quaker practices have now become generally adopted, this one gained the Quakers a reputation for honesty and led them into the nascent banking industry.

Quakers believed that the practice of sizing-up customers and haggling was one that often took advantage of the poor and lacked integrity and truth in business; so they invented the price tag. This kept things fair and honest, and you knew that it didn’t matter what you wore into a store, or what you spoke about, or what your purchasing history would be, you would get a fair price. This was one of the reasons why, in times past, Friends were so successful in business. People went to them because they trusted them.

Quakerism is driven by social witness and a pointing to a more just society based in an understanding of Jesus that challenges the kinds of shady-deals and bullying tactics Amazon and Wal-Mart are known for. But what happens when we ourselves benefit from a social structure that is opposed to core convictions of our tradition? Amazon’s tactics challenge Friends to consider their tradition and its relevancy for today.

Are we as Friends dynamic enough to respond to these challenges? Or will we just lament the fact that society no longer uses the fixed price-tag, bemoaning the loss of integrity around us? Have we become too fixed to allow our prophetic witness to be dynamic with God’s Spirit? Let us continue to press for justice and integrity in the world and operate as a prophetic community, even if it costs us.

Will we know how to respond if we see a Grizzly coming?


  • a disclaimer:

I’ve made my ill-feelings about Amazon fairly well-known on this blog. And have had many good discussions with people on various ends of the spectrum on the subject. I understand that for some Amazon is a way to get their work out in a way that is not possible otherwise, and I understand that some use Amazon as a way to make a living without actually being apart of Amazon – they use it as a tool. So what I am about to say is not a critique of all possible nuances, and good people everywhere just trying to get by, it is more a challenge and observation about a company that we need to continue to question and address how they use their power and treat those in connection with them.

**Further Reading:
In the Wake of Protest: One Woman’s Attempt to Unionize Amazon.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “Amazon Takes on Quakerism?”

  1. I have long considered this phenomenon in Automobile and House buying. My son bought Saturns in the “early days” of that model when there was no deviation on prices for precisely that reason. We have done enough buying and selling of houses and mortgages to know that this practice is well honed. In fact I believe that this manipulation of rices and mortgages was/is a major cause of economic woes.

    A VERY much different “kettle of fish” (sorry for the old euphemism) is the “price” of education at almost any level. Let alone the tax structure, the amount of fees and supplies that our grandchildren are required to provide in “free” public schools is astonishing to me. The cost of “private” and charter schools is another matter. Higher Education has entirely different “price/cost” issues and concerns.

    Health Care costs are amazing: IF you have insurance the “quoted cost” is often sliced to a relatively small fraction of the “price” while if you do not have insurance because you are unable to afford such insurance you are required to pay the “full price.”

    There are a whole pack of “grizzlies” out there.

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