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The Inside Amazon furore: culture or cult – and does anybody care?

August 18, 2015


If you knew that a company used and abused its employees, sold you things it sourced from sweatshops in Bangladesh whose owners lock the staff into their premises so that they can’t escape in a fire, bought its components from countries where combustible materials duly combust in spectacular fashion, and kept its prices competitive through the use of indentured child labour, would you give them your business?

Yes, you probably would. You might shudder at revelations about conditions in China, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and then keep on buying the products you love from the likes of Nike, Primark and Apple, duly satisfied by reassuring statements from their corporate headquarters. Well maybe you wouldn’t, but most people would, because otherwise a host of big-name companies would be out of business by now.

Amazon is an interesting case in point. It’s an online retailer that aims to sell more or less anything – except, presumably, the fruits of the Dark Web – to anyone. Yet it manages to do so without suffering the kind of reputational damage that sticks to the makers of the products it sells. Sort of.

The other day I read Inside Amazon, a long piece in the New York Times about what it’s like to be an Amazon employee. It’s caused a bit of a stir both on the social media and among other news publishers, some of them most probably because they’re envious that they didn’t pick up on the story first.

Depending upon your outlook, you can read the piece and admire the company as visionary, innovative, dedicated to setting the highest standards – the present and the future of online retailing.

Or, as the NYT portrays them, you can see them as a corporate cult, built on the values of the founder, Jeff Bezos. A business that demands 24/7 commitment from its staff, encourages people to inform on colleagues who fail to meet standards for any reason, be it illness, the demands of family life or personal crisis. That culls its staff on regular basis regardless of mitigating circumstances, such that managers feel the need to nominate sacrificial lambs in order to avoid losing other valuable team members. Effectively a business for which people are a commodity, to be hoovered in, sucked dry and disgorged. Disposed of like cows at the end of their milk-producing lives.

This view is vigorously disputed by Bezos and, in this blog post, by Nick Ciubotariu, one of its eloquent employees.

The NYT article is not the first to put Amazon’s treatment of its people under the microscope. And it’s not the first company with a founder whose ego is the size of the planet he seeks to dominate. Steve Jobs, for example, was not exactly a pussycat. Yet people turned up to work for Apple in full knowledge that Jobs had a talent for making people feel smaller than a pinhead. They did so because they loved being part of a company that made cool things. The share options probably helped as well. Amazon employees don’t have all the goodies offered by other technology companies like Google and Microsoft – free meals, pinball machines and so on. They too, I suppose, get their kicks out of being part of a ground-breaking enterprise. They buy into the cultish fervour because some people love belonging to cults, if that is what it is. The dividing line between culture and cult can be very thin. If you believe the NYT, Amazonians are required to be true believers – those that don’t embrace the creed either get out are forced out.

I’m a regular user of Amazon. I buy books mainly. Sometimes music, and occasionally electronics. I buy from them because it’s easy. I like being prompted with suggestions based on what they know of my tastes. I like the fact that I can compile a wish list and turn the items into purchases in my own time. I read book reviews every week. When I see something I like the look of, I put it on the wish list. Sometimes I wait until the book is out on paperback. Other times I don’t want to wait that long.

When the time comes, I go to the list. Five minutes later, the order’s done, and I get an email telling me when the goods will arrive. Within a couple of days, there’s a ring on the doorbell. What’s not to like?

My needs are pretty simple. I have no desire to summon a drone that will hover outside my door within thirty minutes of my placing the order. No gratification needs to be that instant. I’ve resisted Amazon Prime. I don’t need video streaming and I’m profoundly uninterested in Top Gear Mark 2.

Yet every time I buy books from Amazon I feel a pang of guilt. Because ten minutes’ walk away in my local high street there’s a little bookshop that doesn’t get my business. There’s a WH Smith as well, but I don’t care about them. After all, they’re just another corporate that happily gorges on the VAT savings at airports where much of their business resides.

The bookshop is a family business run by people who love books. They have an antiquarian section, and they have most of the stuff I might otherwise buy from Amazon. But they’re about 30% more expensive.

I’m not sentimental about small businesses. They survive by offering things that the big retailers don’t. In the case of bookshops, the attraction is customer intimacy, personal knowledge, and most importantly the ability to put your hands on the product, turn the pages and leave with stuff that you hadn’t the least intention of buying when came into the shop. Yes, I know that Amazon gives you some of this in a geeky, online sort of way, but it’s not the same.

So I do buy stuff from the bookshop as well as from Amazon. Just as I buy electronics and clothes on the high street, and would buy fruit, vegetables and meat from small shops if the superstores had not sucked the life out of local butchers and greengrocers a couple of decades ago. High streets should be more than collections of bars, restaurants, Starbucks outlets, charity shops and hairdressers.

Parochial concerns like mine are unlikely to be a barrier to Amazon’s future success. But its people practices might be. The company described in the NYT article might not be the Amazon of today. Or it might be. Any firm with thirty thousand employees will find it hard to avoid fracturing into sub-cultures, especially when it has large number of workers in different countries. Ask HP, which has long faced the challenge of maintaining the common approach represented by the HP Way across its far-flung empire. After all, the French have a very different way of doing things than Californians. Subcultures develop into informal schisms that threaten the overriding philosophy and purpose of the enterprise. As they do in countries.

Multinationals also have to contend with more assertive tax gatherers in countries like the UK, whose politicians have picked up on corporate structures designed to minimise tax liabilities in lucrative markets. Amazon has not escaped their scrutiny.

Another threat to its global dominance is that for each innovative service variant it launches, there are a dozen smaller, more agile tech companies looking to find ways of stealing – oops, sorry, I meant re-engineering – its inventions and adapting them for their own purposes. Smaller scale, more personalised, for specialist markets perhaps. There’s only so much that copyright lawyers can do to protect their clients’ intellectual property, especially when the predators have the assistance of a state at their disposal. And even more especially when that state is China.

No matter how touchy-feely the Amazon experience might be for its employees, by its size and dominance it has become a big bad wolf – like Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook. Used by billions yet resented by many, and mistrusted by even more. Which is why so many people are prepared to believe the New York Times exposé, whether true or not.

One Twitter user I came across a couple of days ago claimed that Amazon is the dystopian organisation described by Dave Eggars in his novel The Circle made real. An interesting comparison, though as far as I know, Bezos has no plans to suborn political establishments and control our behaviour with his drones. More on The Circle, which I reviewed a couple of years ago, in a post called The Circle, the Court and the Illusion of Privacy.

Personally I don’t see Amazon as an evil empire. If it’s that rotten to their employees, it will fall apart in due course, especially if its ability to fly new kites becomes increasingly cramped by its Achilles heel, namely a dubious profitability history. It will lose its best people to the tender embrace of rivals. And anyway, it’s just another company that enthusiastically lives by the capitalist mantra: if I can I will. It has some brilliant people who do brilliant things. So do its rivals. And so do future rivals we’ve never even heard of – yet. It’s a dog that’s having its day, and sooner or later it will be supplanted by other dogs.

So I will continue to use Amazon for my purposes, much as I would also like my local bookshop to stay open, and for all the other millions of small retailers to find a way to coexist with the online giants. But to do that, they will have to evolve, to find ways to offer things that the big retailers can’t, just as Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are continuing to evolve.

And their best hope lies surely in another business mantra: when all other things are equal, people like doing business with people. As opposed to some disembodied Happiness Engineer in Seattle.

From → Books, Business, Social, UK, USA

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