Amazingly, it’s just 25 years since Jeff Bezos launched Amazon and we’ve really clicked with his creation. But, asks Rosie Millard, at what cost?
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since Jeff Bezos dreamed up the idea of Amazon from the garage of his house in Seattle. Yet such is the reach of this web Goliath that I once sent my daughter to school on World Book Day dressed as a Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader, complete with the brand name inscribed on her forehead. She was dressed as every book in the world. I was a very smug parent that day.
The Amazon story began with books but the smile beneath the logo goes from the A to the Z because that is indeed the capacity of this internet titan; it can sell you anything and everything. Bezos, now 55 and the wealthiest person in the world with a fortune estimated at £117 billion, started the company on 5 July 1994, with an idea to use the emerging power of the internet to sell books. He had a loan of $300,000 from his parents.
The company was going to be called Cadabra until someone apparently pointed out it sounded like cadaver. Relentless was another favourite until Bezos settled on Amazon, after the mighty river (and because it began with A and would rank high in alphabetical internet searches).
In the early days, a bell would ring every time someone placed an order and the handful of employees would gather round their screens excitedly, but that soon had to be disconnected as orders flooded in. It wasn’t long before it began selling everything. EVERYTHING. Still books, yes, but also all those things you need but don’t want to make a bespoke shopping trip for, such as phone chargers, toothbrushes, batteries, clocks, or a Tangle Teezer hairbrush. I once bought a chocolate fountain from Amazon. Something for which in the old days you would probably have had to hunt high and low. In the high-street days.
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‘Ah, but!’ people would say. ‘It’s still actually much quicker to go to the high street and simply buy what you need rather than wait for the post.’ But Amazon thought of that, too, in the guise of Amazon Prime. Order today, get it tomorrow. Actually, get it today. It is absolutely ideal for those (almost) forgotten birthdays for a godchild.
But it’s a bit impersonal, sending presents by Amazon, isn’t it? No, because Amazon has thought of that too, with its wrapping service and they will even remove the price tag.
Amazon is now the world’s largest online sales company (it shipped more than five billion items worldwide last year), and could almost single-handedly be credited with destroying the familiar high street as we know it. Woolworths, BHS, Toys R Us, Maplin, HMV and House of Fraser are just some of its scalps. The latest casualty is Debenhams, and even that stalwart of British shopping streets, Marks and Spencer, announced the closure of 72 stores on top of the 48 it has already shut.
So closely is Amazon connected with changing bricks-and-mortar shopping to online commerce that the phrase ‘the Amazon effect’ is used as shorthand to explain why so many stores have closed. A recent report from fashion trade journal Women’s Wear Daily suggested that the Amazon effect has caused more than 9,400 stores across the US to close in 2017, which is 50% more than closed in the 2008 recession.
There’s no doubt that Amazon has been catastrophic for the high street, according to retail analyst Natalie Berg, co-author of Amazon (£19.99, Kogan Page). But in the end, we shop on the site because we like it, and for the bricks-and-mortar stores it’s retail Darwinism: evolve or die. High-street shops will have to differentiate themselves more, offering an ‘experience’ not just a fridge, she says. The future of retail is WACD: What Amazon Can’t Do. But in the end, she argues that Amazon will be a force for good. ‘We must brace ourselves for further store closures, bankruptcies, redundancies and consolidation as the sector reconfigures for the digital age. But the retailers left standing will be much stronger for having reinvented themselves.’
It’s not just stores that are experiencing an Amazonian earthquake. Amazon has become the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure services, via Amazon Web Services. It has started making films and TV shows. Having disrupted bookshops, the high street and the department store, Amazon is now marching through the world of Warner Brothers, Disney and the BBC like Godzilla. Media boardrooms are quaking at the thought of Bezos’s invention, which could quite possibly take over every single cultural and commercial offering on the planet, either ones already thought of or even ones that are yet to be invented.
On a domestic level, the presence of Amazon is at once a marvel and a curse. It removes the agony of having to find a protractor, a present or a princess outfit at a moment’s notice. However it also takes away the fun of the high-street search, the opportunity of the unexpected discovery and the important notion of delayed gratification. Why bother saving up for anything when you can have it, discounted, today?
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Without wishing to sound like Old Mother Time, I can vividly recall spending an entire summer babysitting and newspaper delivering in order to save up for a very basic record player, which I bought from Elys of Wimbledon for £82. The arrival of this machine was so joyous, after so long, that I still remember it 40 years later. I could get one today for my daughter, from Amazon, for £36.99. It will arrive this afternoon. Actually, forget playing records. Why bother when you can simply access virtually any single or album ever made by asking Alexa to play it on your Amazon Dot?
But I am not a Luddite. Our shopping habits, as well as our cultural engagement habits, have changed entirely and it is probably not an over-exaggeration to suggest that this is due to the presence of Amazon. Even if you don’t use the website, other commercial outlets have mirrored it exactly so they operate, in effect, as a mini Amazon. Take the John Lewis website. Thanks to johnlewis.co.uk, I have engineered several Christmases for my entire family in two one-hour stints.
Of course I could forgo John Lewis, and use Amazon for my entire Christmas shop. It would work a treat. I could get all my presents cheap as chips, and have them wrapped, carded and sent to everyone in a matter of minutes. But I don’t, because although I find Amazon wildly useful and efficient, I have an underlying anxiety about it. Amazon seems as if everything costs nothing and arrives by magic, but of course, it doesn’t. There are 17 giant warehouses (or, as Amazon puts it, ‘fulfilment centres’) across the UK, where 30,000 workers are employed picking and packing the goods. In May, trade unions began putting pressure on Amazon and its City investors to improve working conditions.
The growth of Amazon seems unstoppable, because we like what it offers. We want chocolate fountains and streamed films. We want to hear every record possible just by asking Alexa to play them, and we want copies of celebrity biographies, and trainers, and we want them cheaply and we want them in our house, now. We feel just too busy to go shopping, or to the cinema, the old way. Alexa, what’s the weather like outdoors?
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