I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

I’ll Never Fly Amazon Again

If you swear off an airline every time you have a poor experience, you’ll be out of airlines in five years.

This isn’t because everyone who runs an airline is an idiot: it’s mostly because being an airline is a terrible business. No matter what logo you put on the plane, most people don’t care what airline they fly — since it hardly matters to the overall function of flying, and airline tickets are a significant expense to most people, they just buy the cheapest tickets that they can find. An undifferentiated commodity competing mostly on price with little customer loyalty is a terrible business.

As I was complaining yesterday about Amazon’s sleazy tactics in the Hachette ebook-pricing negotiations,1 @mareMtl said:

@marcoarment So no more amazon links on your blog?

This gave me pause. I’ve been an Amazon Prime customer since 2005, I buy almost all of my physical-item purchases from Amazon, I use some Amazon Web Services, and Amazon affiliate links provide almost half of this site’s income.2 It’s worth questioning whether I can be so disgusted by some of Amazon’s actions, yet continue to buy from them and earn income from directing other people to buy from them in good conscience. For some reason, that doesn’t feel wrong to me.

Physical retail is similar to the airline business. If you want a pair of Beats, well, stop there and rethink your choices. But if you still want them, it doesn’t really matter whether you get them from Apple, Amazon, B&H, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Beats’ online store, or any other retailer. Some let you try them in person somewhere, some make returns easier, but the main value of the retailer to you is simply selling you what you want. Most people just buy it from wherever’s cheapest that’s reputable at all and will get it to them reasonably soon.

Like airlines, retail is an undifferentiated commodity competing mostly on price with little customer loyalty. And a terrible business.

Very few general-purpose retailers aren’t run by terrible people. We just know a lot about Amazon. But ask anyone who’s worked in retail, and you’ll learn that the others aren’t meaningfully better, ethically — and they’re usually worse than Amazon for customers. (If an online retailer for a substantial market is good, Amazon has probably bought them anyway.)

When it’s easy to support a better-behaving alternative with little downside, do so. I hardly ever buy Kindle ebooks, but that’s easy because I hardly ever buy or read any books. I don’t use Amazon Prime Video because I don’t like how much Amazon spams me about it, but that’s mostly because Apple TV and Netflix cover my needs well. I haven’t bought gas from a BP station since 2010, but that’s easy because there aren’t any BP stations near me, and when I see them on road trips, there’s always another gas station across the street. If the best or only gas stations close to my house were all BPs, I’d probably go there. (It’s not like the other oil companies are awesome.)

But in a market where everyone’s terrible, or where the non-terrible alternatives are much worse for customers, pragmatism wins over minor ethical debates and personal preferences. (Major ethical breaches are another story, but Amazon doesn’t have major ethical problems that I’m aware of.)

That’s why I use Google search and Maps despite not liking Google much, why I still use Instagram and haven’t deleted my Facebook account despite not liking Facebook, why I still use Twitter heavily despite their many dick moves, and why I even recently bought a Samsung SSD because the alternatives weren’t competitive.

And that’s why I’ll keep buying from and linking to Amazon for physical products. It’s usually the best retailer for customers by a mile, its occasional ethical issues are minor, and there are no alternatives that are significantly ethically better and anywhere close to Amazon’s quality for customers.

  1. Amazon will win. They have enough power in the ebook market (and the Department of Justice) to dictate their terms, no matter how unfair or abusive, and the publishers must follow. Amazon believes that they deserve most of the money in digital media sales and unbounded control over pricing, and they’ll eventually get both. ↩︎

  2. This is why I can justify buying, for instance, more headphones than one person really needs: people often come here looking for headphone reviews, then buy the ones I’ve reviewed and recommended over the years. All in, I’ve made a net profit on my headphone hobby. It’s therefore important for me, both ethically and financially, to try to keep those recommendations relevant, accurate, and up-to-date. ↩︎