I hate having to be mad at Amazon. I hated having to boycott them for a bit last year. And I hate having to tsk-tsk them now. Because I love Amazon. For so many reasons.
Amazon has been nothing if not a true friend to writers and readers alike. For writers, they offer seemingly endless shelf space and open up distribution channels that were unheard of just a few years ago. For readers, they’ve offered hard-to-find titles at hard-to-beat prices. They’ve even created products so we can buy their books faster and cheaper. Imagine that!
But like most fine American companies, every now and again, they overstep it a bit, moving from ingenious capitalistic competitors to rub-your-nose-in-it schoolyard bullies. Which is what happened a few weeks ago when Amazon launched a new Price Check app.
The bully part isn’t the app itself (after all, it’s easy enough to price check using our phones and it’s usually a good guess that Amazon will have it cheaper). The bully part was the promotion of the app. On one Saturday Amazon encouraged customers to go to stores, use the price check on that store's products, which would then earn the customer credit if they bought the product from Amazon.
While retailers have a long history of sending out “secret shoppers” to check out the prices and products of the competition, Amazon has taken this a bit further. Understand what Amazon was asking: they wanted their customers - not employees - to head out, in the crowds, in the cold, use the Price Check app to gather data for Amazon (a stated purpose of the app) and then buy the product from Amazon to get a 5% credit.
Not only did Amazon want its own customers to go to work for them, but they wanted to make others - shopkeepers or sales people available to answer questions, point to products - to work for them.
Using loyal customers, teasing the competition. All for kicks and profits. Not nice.
In her book, "The Christian Consumer" (conveniently link to Amazon!), Laura Hartman writes, “Consumers should not use the showrooms, free advice and customer service of a brick-and-mortar store, only to go home and order the same items for less money on the Internet.” Hartman cites Martin Luther’s “neighbor love” criteria for ethical shopping because this “shows little compassion for the seller.”
And I think this is right on here. While certainly Christians should be mindful of good stewardship and not “overpaying” when we don’t have to - and while certainly shopping around and price checking are good things - we should also be mindful of how we love our neighbors as we live out good stewardship.
Amazon’s little “promotion” - turning its loyal customers into worker bees, making a game out of proving Amazon has the cheapest prices - doesn’t seem like neighbor love to me. Not if shopkeepers get excited by an influx of customers, not if sales people spend time assisting folks who use them to earn credit.
Of course, Amazon isn’t the only one guilty of this. I’ve done it - the sort of “shop tease” Hartman writes about. And I’ve done it in the name of “good stewardship.” But just like Amazon, this is taking it too far. After all, Jesus didn’t say that saving money was the most important command. Love was. Love is.
Maybe I’m being naive here, but just as I think there’s room in this world for the brick-and-mortar booksellers and the Amazons, I also believe there’s a way we can be good, mindful stewards who show love. By appreciating that value isn’t reflected only in the price of a product, but also in the cost of an experience.