Say it Ain't So, Jeff
When I wrote Shopportunity! several years ago, I came down pretty hard on Walmart as the epicenter of what is wrong with our consumer culture. The chain’s focus on the okay, available and cheap at any cost, whether that means horrible off-shore manufacturing conditions or its insistence that paying staff a living wage is untenable for its business model. I also put at Walmart’s door the increase in obesity (all that cheap, bad food) and the rise in storage facilities (all those good deals we don’t need) and landfill (all that packaging). Don’t get me started on the role it had played in the demise of Mom & Pop stores and community character. Locking employees in the store to clean overnight? Really?
Much as I’d like to take credit for Walmart’s slouching towards being a more responsible global citizen, mine was one small voice in a vast din of criticism. The news yesterday that it was off its mark for the quarter due to paying its employees better seems, perhaps oddly, occasion for hope. Good citizenship comes at a price. The benefit to the culture will begin to accrue in earnest when Walmart staff no longer needs to go on public assistance to augment their paychecks to forge a living wage.
Thus, my new worry is Amazon, once my poster child of retailing’s bright and charming future. The refusal to work solely for quarterly profit was exhibit A: The street responded to Jeff Bezo’s model by making Amazon the most valuable retailer in the world, despite and because he constantly reinvests. The way the company supports Mom & Pop stores by letting them sell their wares on the site was exhibit B in my view. Obviously, the radical convenience of Amazon Prime is magic with or without a Tide button in the laundry room. The Fire Stick is an enchanted wand, serving up hours of effortless entertainment. I was a devotee for sure.
Then came Sunday’s piece in The New York Times. Does the fact that The Times’ report is about white-collar workers make it okay to demand 80-hour weeks, discourage vacations and enable any colleague to lodge a career-ending complaint to a worker’s boss? The working conditions described in the piece are not the management practices typically ascribed to Silicon Valley wunderkinds. I am left to ponder the highest and best use of my shopping dollars. If I would not enter a Walmart on principle, which, after all wasn’t much of a sacrifice since I live in NYC where there are none, must I now unplug myself from Prime?
I’m pretty sure I must. Color me bummed.