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How Heinous Does Amazon Have to Be Before You Boycott?

Rob Walker

What would it take to make you boycott Amazon.com?

The online retail giant has been in the news lately — and not in a good way. Most recently, it stands accused of upping prices, slowing deliveries, and blocking preorders for books from Hachette, in a “scorched earth” response to a business dispute with that publisher.

Whatever the details of the disagreement, it certainly seems outrageous that Amazon would punish the rest of us in order to win the fight. “The company’s willingness to nakedly flex its anticompetitive muscle,” The New York Times declared, “gives new cause for concern to anyone who cares about books — authors, publishers, but mainly customers.”

This is not the first time Amazon has outraged onlookers, commentators, and perhaps some segment of the public at large with its relentless business tactics. No less an authority than Stephen Colbert devoted a recent segment to the allegation that the company had managed to patent the idea of photographing objects against a white background. That allegation may be distorted, but it certainly went viral.

Even before that, there was the drumbeat of reports and investigative stories and accusations that the company has treated its warehouse distribution workers “ruthlessly.” And indeed the recent book about Amazon, Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, has attracted attention largely because of its exploration of the company’s harsher side — to take one widely quoted example, it describes Amazon’s attitude toward the publishing industry as “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”

For quite a while now I’ve read stories along these lines and shaken my head in disapproval — and then ordered something from Amazon. Let’s face it: Amazon is easy, convenient, and comparatively cheap!

And clearly I am not an outlier hypocrite. Because the only thing that grows faster than the criticism of Amazon.com … is the revenue of Amazon.com.

So I’ve been wondering what it would take for me — for you, for people in general — to actually stop using Amazon.com as a tangible form of disapproval for its more unpleasant behaviors.

Lately, we’ve heard anecdotal reports that such a thing may be happening. Last week, Salon columnist Laura Miller announced that she had “quit Amazon because of its monopolistic tactics.” And The Timesreported on a Connecticut woman’s decision to “just quit Amazon” when her attempts to complain to the company about its behavior in the Hachette imbroglio went nowhere. Meanwhile, Twitter pundits have dreamed up a catty phrase — Amazon UnPrime — which as we all know is a revolutionary act.

But hold the guillotine. Miller is upbeat about non-Amazon book-buying options, yet concedes, “There are still a few items I buy from Amazon because they’re not easily available elsewhere.” And even The Times’ lonely boycotter is quoted musing that she may give in, apparently in part because “Amazon had the clothing hangers she wanted, but no one else did.”

So what would it take for me, for Miller, for the lonely boycotter, for you, to really stop using Amazon? Ultimately I suspect the answer is that it has less to do with how heinous Amazon’s behavior might be and more to do with us. That is: We have to be willing to pay more, or wait longer for a delivery, or even — if you can imagine it — simply do without the specific clothing hangers, or whatever, that we want.

So, in short, we’ll see. But for the moment, Amazon seems to inhabit a remarkable paradox: It can afford to ignore the distress and outrage of its own customers — precisely because it is so good at what it does. 

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalkerRSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.