Amazon and the Ghosts of Christmas Present

So, how have you set about completing your Christmas shopping as the holiday season approaches?  Did you brave the scuffles of Black Friday in search of the ultimate in-store bargain?  Have you subjected your computer to the minefield of cookies when chasing the lowest possible internet prices on Cyber Monday?  Or are you the sort of person who waits to see what offers are available at the late-night petrol station on Christmas Eve?

Most probably you will plump for the least stressful option.  And what could be easier than kicking off your shoes, firing up your mobile device, having a quick surf and pressing the purchase button every now and again?  The presents will arrive the next day – perhaps already wrapped to save you the bother – and you won’t even have needed to break sweat.

‘Hurray for internet shopping,’ I hear you cry.  Those nice people at Amazon have created a virtual market that allows us to avoid all the pushing and shoving, all the claustrophobic crowds, all the ritualised elements of having to run with the retail mob.  They have conjured up an experience devoid of stresses and strains, delivering Christmas to your door as they go.

That, in any case, is the image appearing in the adverts for the online retail giant.  Did we ever really fall for such a sanitised version of events, though, when considering how our purchases moved from A to B following the click of a mouse?  Even if we did, or even if we were unaware that there was anything of importance to consider, it is now impossible to sidestep such potentially troubling questions.  Last month’s Panorama exposé of working practices at Amazon distribution centres means that we can no longer plead ignorance.

Warehouse whistleblowers are a relatively recent phenomenon.  Stories appeared earlier in the year, for instance, revealing that certain supermarkets were electronically tagging their workers to try to enforce productivity.  Now the BBC has placed a journalist in an Amazon distribution centre to show how its workers have to carry around a countdown clock which records every element of task completion against a specified time limit.  This is constant monitoring; it is deeply intrusive and deeply disciplinary.

It also means that the stresses of finding the right Christmas presents do not magically disappear through the advent of internet shopping.  They are simply displaced.  Consumers can hide behind the mirage of a stress-free experience, but only because the anonymity of the online retail world allows them to pass on those pressures to other people.  Warehouse workers are not just generically on the clock but have the prospect of a countdown clock reaching zero stalking their every move.  This is physically damaging for them, as they permanently have to strive to meet one target after another.  It is also psychologically damaging, because the targets are set specifically so that failure is an inbuilt feature of being at work.

The new ghosts of Christmas present are therefore clearly lined up for all to see.  They take the form of warehouse workers paid bargain-basement wages to be pushed to their physical and psychological limits just to make the process of gift-giving easier for us.

What to do in such circumstances?  Is it possible to carry on as before whilst maintaining that our consciences are clear when trading through Amazon’s online platforms?  Are the stresses imposed on those who work within its distribution centres a price worth paying for ensuring that friends and family have gifts to open this Christmas at minimal cost to our own discomfort?  Or will the Panorama programme persuade us to go back to the old-fashioned way of braving the scrums if we decide to withhold our custom from the online retail giant?

History does not record the terms and conditions enjoyed by Santa’s elves, but it does now reveal the treatment of the Amazon workers helping us to manage our hectic routines this Christmas.  Given, though, that a little learning is often a dangerous thing, does it really make our lives easier knowing what we do today about the unseemly side of the warehouse?  Physically, yes – because it is clearly still a lot less hassle to purchase gifts online.  The terms and conditions of warehouse workers raise important ethical issues, however, concerning the harms that are produced when shopping like this.  The way ahead is paved with complex ethical dilemmas and is far from straightforward to navigate.

5 thoughts on “Amazon and the Ghosts of Christmas Present”

  1. Interesting post Mat. I’m curious about what is behind the hurry in warehouses. Does management think that we have to have things delivered the next day in order to compete with retail stores?

    If I do my Christmas shopping online today, as long as it arrives before the 24th I am happy – I don’t need it tomorrow. Knowing what I know, if Amazon had a ‘take your time’ shipping option, I’d take it; I still prefer shopping online to shopping in person.

    So… do you have any ideas about why Amazon has chosen to compete on speed rather than, or as well as, competing on price and the range of goods available?

    1. This is a really interesting point, and to be honest it is not one that I had considered before. You’re right of course that for most people and for most purchases it doesn’t matter whether it comes tomorrow, the next day or next week – or, as you say in relation to Christmas shopping, anytime before the 24th. It might be that Amazon has got carried away a bit by presuming that life is now led according to the prescriptions of an instant gratification culture and, because of that, if we don’t get things delivered the next day we are going to stop treating the service as a useful one.

      But I don’t think that online and instore shopping is now what economists would call perfect substitutes for one another. In other words, even if it was to take more time for Amazon to deliver things to us I am not sure at all that this would send us all scuttling back to instore shopping. Some people like the social aspect of going with friends to town on a Saturday afternoon and doing their shopping that way, and nothing that Amazon can do to reduce their delivery times is going to replace that social experience. Equally, others will be much more interested in the convenience of shopping online, and the thought of going through the rigmarole of getting to town to shop instore is not going to lessen the convenience Amazon provides even if next day delivery is no longer guaranteed. In fact, for the same person sometimes one of these ways of shopping is going to be preferred and sometimes the other, and nothing really is going to change that.

      This perhaps brings me to the only explanation I have: Amazon puts people on the clock to guarantee next day delivery wherever possible because it can do. It knows that it is in the privileged position of operating in the context of a vast pool of spare labour, so it can always replace one worker with another. This allows it to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of its workforce, and the countdown clock is simply an automated way of doing this. Amazon gets away with it because its workplace practices have, as yet, failed to be monitored effectively either by whistleblower accounts or consumer pressure. And of course disciplining workers to get more out of their working day drives up the profits they make in the short term, and it also drives down the price it can charge its customers. This in turn allows it to undercut pretty much all of its competitors, which is what is allowing Amazon to increasingly take on the position of monopolist, and that position is going to secure an enhanced level of long-term profitability. So, it can sell its countdown clock as a way of giving customers what they want, even if its customer base would be perfectly happy with what you brilliantly call the ‘take your time’ option, but this might just be an exercise in smoke and mirrors. What might actually be happening is nothing other than the time-honoured tactic of increasing workplace discipline as a way of increasing company profits.

  2. Amazon is in the news again this week as more undercover reporters get inside its distribution centres to provide first-hand accounts of working conditions. Today’s Guardian reports the emergence of an online petition asking Amazon bosses to pay a living wage: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/dec/20/amazon-bosses-petitioned-demeaning-staff-conditions-warehouse. This follows on closely from a piece in the Observer that highlights the disciplining codes to which Amazon workers are subjected: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/dec/20/amazon-bosses-petitioned-demeaning-staff-conditions-warehouse.

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