Heather Mallick: Will Amazon crash when Jeff Bezos plays rocket man?
|Toronto Star 20 Jun 2021 at 12:57|
“There is no happiness in life,” Russian president and chief poisoner Vladimir Putin said recently. “There is only a mirage on the horizon. So cherish that.”
Doesn’t that sound just like something Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos might say? Bezos, personally worth $195 billion (U.S) and his company with a market capitalization nearing $1.8 trillion, finds his successes, his happinesses, turn into mirages. They fade in his mind as he hunts further innovation.
For Bezos has a terror of Amazon becoming what he calls a “Day 2” company. “Day two is stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death,” he says. It is not entirely clear to me he’s talking about Amazon here, more a medical experiment on lab monkeys or a teenage diary.
Here are some of Bezos’s efforts in recent years. Prime. One-Day Prime. Amazon’s Choice (possibly illegal). Amazon Web Services (data storage). Alexa (voice). Echo (speaker). Air (delivery). Ring (doorbell spy). Fire (TV). Audible (books and podcasts). Kindle (ebooks). Prime Video. Fresh (food). Marketplace (sell your stuff). Pharmacy (prescriptions). Washington Post (prestige). Expansion (Mexico, India, China). Blue Origin (space travel). Logistics (putting delivery chains on high spin and seeing what emerges).
He is Amazon and Amazon is he. In 2013 U.S. journalist Brad Stone wrote “The Everything Store,” a fascinating history of an enterprise that was huge, brilliant, and brutal. Since then, it has become more so.
Bezos wouldn’t talk to Stone for his new book, “Amazon Unbound,” but it doesn’t matter. An interview would fatten American readers’ worship of wealth and fame but it wouldn’t necessarily offer insight.
Does Bezos know his failings? In business, maybe. Is he a decent human being? No. A corporate boon during the pandemic? Absolutely. Are people torn with guilt when they buy from Amazon? Yes, if they think it through.
Companies tend to take on the characteristics of the person leading the enterprise. Amazon is a harsh place of “informal cruelty” where staffers live in terror of Bezos and his relentless questions. You have to be right. If you’re not, you’ll depart or spend the next year shaken to your core.
And that’s upper management. If you work in an Amazon warehouse, you wreck your body, neglect your family, and work like a beast in the field with tech tracking every movement of your hands and feet. If you deliver for Amazon, you are not on staff but always on call, a danger to people on the roads and perhaps yourself, you pee in a bottle, and your daily life is a tormented endurance run.
That said, I started buying books from Amazon in 2002. Nineteen years later, Amazon has killed almost all bookstores and currently makes it very difficult for me to buy books in Canada. They are flown in from Book Depository UK. It’s environmentally harmful and takes a month. Without books, I wilt. But I helped do this to myself.
Bezos chose books because they were a commodity, easy to track, package and ship. Now Bezos tries to sell food which is of variable quality, rots, requires refrigerated airplanes and trucks, and can’t just be tossed on the porch. The man will try anything as long as it’s new.
On the bright side, I have so many Amazon-delivered screwdrivers, kitchen gadgets and pillow inserts that I could sell them all on Amazon Marketplace and make a wretched living at it. The one per cent is rich beyond description; everyone else is a minion now, a tiny corporation of one.
Amazon groceries were Bezos’s next big thing. Soon there will be another. At the moment it is Blue Origin, which is offering space travel. In July, Bezos will fly with friends to the edge of space in a rocket ship named New Shepard, a terrible idea. Nice little life you got there, Jeff. Shame if anything happened to it.
Bezos’s problem has mainly been humans and their frailties. When he replaces them with warehouse robots, what happens to them? Could he not have treated humans better? He outsourced delivery and as predicted, fast, meticulous, high-energy workers were hard to find. Customers began to find Amazon imperfect, which he does not allow.
But there’s more. The question is not what Amazon does or attempts to do. Everyone knows that it’s so big and destructive that governments worldwide will eventually take steps. But there’s a larger question.
Has Amazon, one of the most skilled and extractive (of money) enterprises extant, become the unacceptable face of capitalism?
It abuses capitalism’s freedoms. It is alleged to have used its own data about third-party sellers to create similar products that destroy them, to have signed anti-competitive deals, basically blackmailed cities into tax breaks for Amazon if it built there, and paid zero taxes. It could do this because of dominance but that’s what antitrust laws are for.
It’s legal but is it tolerable? European nations — more used to unions, social cohesion and safety nets, and corporate taxation — are fed up with Amazon. Eventually Americans will reach that point.
And Amazon — with Bezos remarried, richer than ever and circling the planet out in space — will become a Day 2 company.