Clicking off of

Between September, 2010 and September 2011, I spent $1,042 buying books from Since October, I have spent $0 there. As I describe today in the Nation online, I stopped clicking on Amazon after reading this terrific story by Spencer Soper describing Amazon’s poor labor practices at a facility near Allentown Pennsylvania.

Incidentally, I encountered this story this because Ezra Klein wrote a column that linked to it. Yet Soper’s account highlights the irreplaceable value of strong local news coverage. National reporters can’t track conditions in some nondescript warehouse in the Lehigh valley. Barbie and Ken local TV newscasters generally can’t dig out these stories, either, or document them with the required depth.

I found this story particularly disturbing because Amazon doesn’t have to behave this way. It’s not some marginal lettuce grower or local restaurant that must squeeze its workers to survive. This is a thriving high-tech company with a commanding market position and booming sales. I’ll come back to when it demonstrates that it is treating its workers better. Until then, I prefer to take my business elsewhere. You should too.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

13 thoughts on “Clicking off of”

  1. I wouldn’t call this a defense of what happened in Allentown, but Amazon is a big box retailer with better long selection tail and a better website than Wal-Mart.

    Profit margins, 2010
    AMZN: 3.35%

    WMT: 3.78%
    BBY: 2.71%
    TGT: 4.33%

    AAPL: 23.95%
    GOOG: 29.01%
    MSFT: 33.10%

    Which group does Amazon belong in? I have no idea how to compare warehouse work at Amazon with warehouse work elsewhere.

  2. Okay, it ate my last comment, but if you look at operating margins, AMZN looks much more like WMT/TGT/BBY than it does like AAPL/GOOG/MSFT. The first group has margins around 4%; the second has margins above 20%. Amazon’s margin last year was 3.35%, and that’s not very atypical. It’s a big-box retailer with a better website and better long tail selection than Walmart. This isn’t a defense of what was happening at Allentown, but the better comparison is to typical warehouse or big-box retail work. And I have no idea how they fare on that score.

  3. From what I read of Jeff Bezos, he believes Amazon is a low-margin business that must do everything it can to squeeze costs.

  4. Another reason to avoid Amazon:

    They fought California’s tax policy by becoming yet another major corporation to finance a ballot initiative when they didn’t get their way in the State House. Unlike other corporations who went down this road (Valero, Tesoro, PG&E, Mercury Insurance) and whose ballot measures went down in flames, Amazon won a partial victory through a backroom deal to preserve, at least temporarily, the “Amazon loophole”. See this for decent summary and analysis; more links on the second page:

  5. I had bought some items from Amazon as well when they were unavailable elsewhere, and stopped sending them money in response to the same story. But one thing which is difficult to come by in the news is good follow-up. If Amazon did radically change the way it treats its workers, I have no way of knowing about the change, or even about current conditions in Allentown. Because I want the local independent brick and mortar bookstore to be there on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I have reasons not to get books from Amazon, but some kinds of tax software and some music is not readily available elsewhere, and it would be nice to know when Amazon changes if it ever does.

    Just as I stopped going to Whole Foods in August of 2009 when its CEO got all Ayn Randy about the health care law, I have no way to know if he still has that attitude, and if he still opposes universal heath insurance coverage.

    I suppose that Dow Chemical no longer makes napalm to drop on Vietnamese hamlets, so maybe I can eventually go buy Saran Wrap one of these days. But not just yet until it is clearer what Dow is up to now.

  6. I had a friend who worked at the Amazon warehouse near Reno, NV and called the conditions “Dickensian.” Now I can see what he meant. I’d like to see one of the “you’re just lazy, get a job” anti-Occupy movement folks try out an Amazon job for a few days.

  7. As someone enrolled in college, I find that purchasing new books at Amazon saves me between 1/3 and 1/2 when compared with the campus bookstore. Since most of my courses include some stupid online component, one doesn’t save a penny purchasing used books, as one has to pay the publishers another $40-50 penalty to get an access code just to be able to submit homework. Several of my fellow students think they’re saving a few bucks purchasing used books, but I’ve seen too many of them get older editions, which leads to more frustration as not all courses can get use the older editions. For example, in the business law course, the current edition is using court cases from 2010, while the previous edition is using cases from as late as 2009. For most chapters, it isn’t a problem, but when the prof uses one of the newer cases on a quiz, some folks were caught flat footed.

    Boycotting Amazon would raise my university costs about $500 per semester (I’m only a 1/2 time student). This doesn’t count the “long tail” stuff I purchase. My local British stores (not that there are a lot in Denver, as opposed to, say, Florida) don’t carry Twiglets as they can’t sell a case of it before they go stale, so I have to obtain stuff like this from Walmart’s online twin – Amazon.

    You should have gotten a clue about Bezos philosophy when he threatens to fire workers and close warehouses when states have the uppity gall to try to collect taxes on business conducted in those states. So it wouldn’t surprise me that he’s trying to turn into the next Sam Walton.

    At my previous employer (near the bottom of the Fortune 500), we had an internal sales tax system set up that was able to handle all sorts of different products and services for every county in the US. And if that behind-the-curve company is able to do it, Amazon could do it better. Amazon justs choose not to.

  8. Ed Whitney — I’m heartened to see I’m not the only one who has refused to step foot into Whole Foods following the CEO’s odd decision to publish an anti-health care legislation screed! I sent an email to the corporate office explaining my decision so it wasn’t for naught, and they were surprisingly snippy (I had expected at least a nice “we wish you’d change your mind” that would be basic customer service response 101). I have often driven by and wondered longingly whether management had changed its tune, but with no way of knowing (and no interest in engaging with customer service again), they simply don’t get my business.

  9. It is really almost impossible to boycott Amazon. Sure you can avoid buying there but a vast proportion of the internet is hosted by Amazon. So unless you decide to go completely offline you’re screwed.

  10. Try It was once independent; now owned by eBay, but still essentially a network of independent used book vendors. I’ve used it for years.

  11. It is really almost impossible to boycott Amazon. Sure you can avoid buying there but a vast proportion of the internet is hosted by Amazon.

    I hadn’t realized that is owned by Amazon, so that was dispiriting. Will try your rec, Lowry!

  12. Just when I concluded that Amazon was a bunch of jerks, one of its venture capitalists goes and publishes This does not reflect one way or another on current management, but this little editorial deserves much attention and a commendation.
    A tip of the hat to Lowry for pointing out It appears to be part of E-Bay, about which I know nothing, but it is not Amazon. In buying from it, am I just doing the equivalent of voting for a not-Romney, or does anyone know more about how it treats its workers?

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