Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why Amazon Is Not The Enemy

I’m getting a little tired of people ganging up on Amazon. It’s the Internet’s version of the Antichrist, as far as some critics are concerned. The publishing community is quaking under its shadow, and according to most, it’s the reason Borders and numerous other small bookstores have folded.
            I don’t agree. Aside from groceries, I do a good 90-95% of my shopping on Amazon. Because Amazon offers me the widest selection with the lowest prices, the best customer service, and the fastest shipping.
            Do other online stores offer me a $75/year membership  to have all my merchandise shipped to my house in two days for free? No. Do they offer the most competitive prices on the Internet? No. Have they, on the very few occasions when I’ve had an issue, offered me customer service which solved my problem in a matter of minutes? No. And that’s not Amazon’s fault. It’s the fault of its failing competitors.
            How did Amazon manage to become the number one online retailer in the eighteen years since its founding? By giving customers something different, something they wanted, and doing it better than anyone else. Just like Google, and Apple, and Walmart. Remember all those little browser systems, like AltaVista? Remember IBM? Betamax? Blockbuster? All losers in the same types of wars.
            We live in a capitalist country, and capitalism is war. Businesses must fight to earn the consumer’s money. The only way they can win is by, a) offering the same product in a better way than its competitors (lower price, higher-quality product, faster shipping, etc), or b) offering something completely new and desirable, and making sure that, over time, it remains the most desirable of its type on the market. The best companies, like Apple and Amazon, do both.
            Consumers are fickle beasts. And no matter how much brand loyalty they supposedly have, if they’re given the right incentives, they will defect. I’ll give you two examples. The first is Redbox. Now, Redbox knew they couldn’t compete with Netflix on open ground. Instead, they exploited Netflix’s weakness—the unavailability of brand new movies on Netflix’s streaming service. Rather than wait two days or more for Netflix to ship a new movie they were in the mood for now, customers could take a short drive to a conveniently located Redbox kiosk and get that movie right now. Two years ago, no one had heard of Redbox; now there’s one at virtually every gas station in my area.
            The second example is a personal one. Last year, when Maureen Johnson’s book The Name of the Star was announced, I preordered it months in advance for my Kindle. Then Ms. Johnson tweeted that anyone who ordered from Books of Wonder in NYC would receive a signed copy and a fridge poetry magnet set she’d designed herself. Even though it was ten or fifteen dollars more expensive, even though I had to delay gratification a week while the book shipped, I canceled my Kindle preorder and placed my order through BoW. Because BoW and the author collaborated to offer something Amazon couldn’t. That’s how you stay in business.
            Put simply, in my opinion, the burden of staying in business is on the business, not on the consumer or on other, larger businesses. If the market changes, business must change with it; adapt or die. Once upon a time, Amazon was the little guy; so were all the big kahunas out there. But they earned their place and fought their way to the top by setting themselves above and apart from the competition. And it’s up to their current competition to do the same. 

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