Who Pays for Free Shipping?

Rain may not stop Fed Ex, but it makes the job more unpleasant.

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. For some reason, common sense like this seems to go out the window when it comes to the holidays. We accept ridiculously low prices and promises of “no waiting” and “free shipping” like Christmas miracles, never stopping to ask why we’re getting offers this good, and who’s paying for them.

Sometimes, the price of our shopping sprees is lack of human decency to the people who pack our presents and make sure they have overnight, speedy delivery. According to this article, in order for a huge retailer like Amazon or Walmart to come through on their shipping promises, they often outsource labor so they can treat people even worse than they treat their own employees. A company can’t provide something for free unless they make up for those lost profits someplace else. In many cases, low wages and inhuman working conditions are the price of our convenience.

And buying online isn’t just worse for workers — it creates an incredible amount of waste. Packing each person’s order separately takes more boxes and packing materials than it does to ship a bulk order to a local shop. To put it in perspective: Last year, I ordered Christmas gifts online for about 15 people from three different stores. I had more packing material left over from those three orders than I do from the past two weeks of ordering books for my shop, and those gifts go to hundreds of different people. Sure, you can erase some of this waste by reusing boxes and packing peanuts (and I hope that you do). But, while reusing is great, not creating the waste in the first place is best.

I’m not arguing that we should never shop online. In fact, web sales can be a great tool for local shops as well as big boxes. But try to buy from small shops that don’t outsource their shipping, so you can be relatively certain the employees aren’t being treated unfairly. And remember to skip the cyber shops when buying for Father Christmas — Mother Earth will thank you.

Climbing off the Soapbox

It’s lonely up here. I wouldn’t recommend it.

I’m a little worried I’ve been too dogmatic on Shop Small lately. While I’m passionately against the practices of certain companies (ahem, Amazon), I don’t think we have to cut out corporations entirely. It’s true that we have a broken economy, and I think it’s sad that so little money circulates within our local community. But I don’t think we’ve reached a point where extremism is the only answer.

We need to shift our habits, but we don’t have to completely rehaul them. If you choose local shops first, and save big box shopping for those times when you can’t find something locally or when it’s truly inconvenient, I think you’ll find that shopping small is a lot cheaper and easier than you might have guessed. You’ll be benefiting your community while putting forth very little effort, and without climbing onto a soapbox.

We also have to become more educated consumers to determine which big box shops we avoid at all costs (for me, that’s Amazon and Walmart), and which ones do an okay job of taking care of their suppliers and their employees (for me, that’s Starbucks and Whole Foods).

This research does take a little effort, but it has an unexpected benefit, at least for me — when I’m more connected to where I’m spending my money, I become more aware of how I’m spending it, and how I can save it. Instead of feeling like my bank account is something separate and scary, it’s become a tool that I use to make my community, and my life, better. It’s a small shift in thinking that’s had big impact for me personally, and it’s probably the most important benefit this year of small shopping has had on my life.

Are you ready to shift your thinking and try shopping small? I wrote a little article for Weld about my reasons to Shop Small for the holidays. Filling your stockings with locally bought presents just might be the best gift we can give our community this Christmas.

You Say Competitive, I Say Cutthroat

To make sure they’re undercutting every competitor as much as possible, Amazon has announced a new plan to keep their prices low. They’re paying people ($5 a pop, up to three times) to go into any brick-and-mortar store, scan the bar code of an item with a smart phone, and tell Amazon what the price is, so they can beat it.

As customers, this sounds great. Why shouldn’t we want to save money? And shouldn’t we really be angry at those shops that don’t lower their prices, that greedily pocket more of our hard earned cash?

First, know that, in most cases, your local shops aren’t making all that much of a profit. We pay more for our goods in the first place because we can’t strong arm our suppliers. And we pay a higher percentage of taxes because we can’t afford to pay accountants to find loopholes in the law. Also, we tend to pay our employees better wages and often provide things like health insurance. Then there’s the fact that independents usually donate an incredible amount to charities in our communities, much more than large corporations do. All those costs can really add up, leaving less opportunity for us to provide discounts.

Second, think about why companies like Amazon and Walmart can offer such incredible discounts, often cutting into the actual cost of manufacturing the item. Buying in bulk and circumventing the law helps, but it doesn’t account for the dramatic differences we often see. Usually, your low prices come from a combination of these factors:

  • Low Quality: You think you’re getting the exact same product, whether you buy if from a local shop or from Amazon. And, today, you are. But corporate giants get their wholesale prices low in part by squeezing their suppliers to make their bills lower on the back end. Often, the only way a company can cut the cost is to cut the quality of the product itself. So Amazon’s low prices today mean lower quality for everyone in the long run.
  • Bait and Switch: Once these companies kill their competition, there’s nothing stopping them from raising their prices again. You think they won’t? Remember, Amazon is asking you to spy for them, to steal information from their competitors, and to effectively funnel money away from your community. Don’t expect them to act ethically tomorrow when they’re showing nothing but greed today.

  • Impulse Buys: When a company provides an item, like the Kindle, for less than cost, it’s because they’re certain they’ll make up the money later. Amazon knows it’ll make up the manufacturing costs of Kindle, because they’ve forced their customers to buy eBooks only from them, stealing the freedom to choose. And Walmart and Amazon both know that, if they “save” you enough money, you’ll almost always add more items to your cart. It’s true that you’ll get more for your money. But your budget will still take a hit.
  • Quality of Life: Who pays the price when you save? Often, it’s employees. Labor is one of the biggest expenses for almost any retail business, and it can be the easiest to cut. It’s worth looking into — if a company slashes prices, did it also just cut health insurance? Does it deny its employees 401Ks? Does it discriminate against women as a matter of policy, or shuffle hours so employees don’t qualify for health care and overtime, as Walmart does?

I believe in the free market, but I don’t believe in competition without consequences. Nobody wins when a company takes a step like this one to directly undermine small businesses, to undercut suppliers and employees. As consumers, it’s time to insist that companies fight fair, to stand up for ourselves, our communities, and our local and national economy. It’s time to spend the extra $50 for our flat screens, the extra $.50 for our lattes, the extra time it takes to swing by a local grocery or market — because we know that the extra money works to better our neighborhoods, our schools and our economy.

It’s time to boycott Amazon, and stand up for ourselves.

Note: I own a small business, but, since I don’t discount, there’s very little chance that I’ll actually be hurt by this latest Amazon strategy. It doesn’t upset me because it hurts my business; it upsets me because it hurts my community.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Profits?

Every time I see that Amazon commercial that uses a Voltaire quote to sell their eReader, I want to throw a book at the TV. I can’t believe how flagrantly they’re misusing Voltaire’s words, and it angers me more than your average stupid commercial because I know this is just a shadow of how their content-controlling policies will continue to impact the future of writing.

Here’s the quote:
“The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”

Using a Voltaire quote to push the agenda of a corporation who has content-controlling policies like Amazon’s at best shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Enlightenment was all about and, at worst, reveals that Amazon has no qualms about perverting the words of one of our most influential writers to serve their bottom line. Voltaire was against censorship, and fundamentally opposed to one group of people having access to information that another group does not.

See, when Amazon says “property of all,” they mean “property of everyone who owns a Kindle.” That’s what makes Amazon’s eReader policy different, and more dangerous, than any other company’s. On a Kindle, you can only read books that you buy from Amazon. That’s like buying an iPod and discovering that it will only play music that you purchased directly from Apple — something most of us wouldn’t stand for. Amazon’s policy not only cuts out small businesses, but it also puts the content of your library entirely under their control. They’re also publishing certain books that cannot be read on any other device. That’s scary — and it hardly meshes with the idea of “property of all.”

One thing I do agree with about Amazon’s marketing strategy — fire is an appropriate metaphor. The idea that a corporation has the right to control and distribute art and ideas is likely to catch like wildfire with other businesses, and it will be destructive. Voltaire fought against the controlling political forces of his day. In our world, it’s no longer the monarchy that justifies bullying people in order to build up more wealth. Today, that privilege belongs to certain corporations who misuse their power.

Maybe Amazon took Voltaire’s quote out of context on purpose. More likely, they just didn’t understand (or care) what it meant. Either way, that’s not the company I want controlling my library. For now, their content-control is probably more about making money than about censoring ideas they don’t agree with. But I’m not naïve enough to think this will always be the case — and I don’t think Voltaire would be, either.

News Flash: Southerners Read!

Reading on the front porch: It’s as Southern as sweet tea (and Good People IPA).

If you moved below the Mason-Dixon after your formative years, there’s nothing like football season to remind you you’re not really a southerner. I don’t have a preference for Alabama or Auburn (horrors!). I don’t particularly enjoy okra or grits (although Trattoria Centrale and Chez Lulu are kind of changing my mind on the grits issue). I may live in the land of the southern accent, but I’m a Midwestern girl through and through: I call Coke “soda,” I’m most comfortable when wearing a sweater, I’m self-deprecating to a fault, and I think, if you can’t eat Kansas City barbeque, you might as well go vegetarian.

But, while I’m still a Kansan at heart, I’m an Alabamian, too. I’m proud of that, and it makes me angry when people (I’m talking to you, sitcom writers and evening news producers) generalize southerners as stupid, ignorant or incomprehensible. I put down a book just last week because the southern dialogue was forced and kitschy (it was written by a Chicagoan).

The concept that Alabamians are stupid is, well, ignorant. Just look at our book industry. In a world where bookshops are supposed to be closing right and left, ours are thriving. Books A Million — you might know them as that store that’s expanding into several abandoned Borders shops — is headquartered here. And we have an abnormally high number of thriving independent bookstores. In fact, last time I looked at the statistics, we had more than Chicago has.

Not to brag or anything (in case you missed it, I own a bookstore), but Birmingham has some amazing bookshops. It doesn’t matter how or what you like to read — Southern literature, used books, experiential fiction, eBooks, signed first editions, cyberpunk — there’s a local store that specializes in it and will hook you up with exactly the books you’re looking for. So, this week, I’m going to visit as many independent bookshops as I can, writing about a different shop every day.

But before I go small shopping, I want to say a word about Birmingham’s big box bookshops (alliteration overkill?). If Books A Million has to exist, I love that it’s headquartered here. Among other things, it means you can buy a Nook eReader locally (if not independently) and use it to read locally sold eBooks. And our Summit Barnes and Noble is, in my opinion, the strongest big-box bookstore I’ve ever been to. They seem to have low employee turnover, and their staff is fantastically friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about books. As much as I’ll be championing independent bookshops this week, I want to be clear that, although I don’t like the corporate bookselling model, I know that there are some great booksellers working at those stores — fellow Alabamians who love books as much as I do.

We’re Alabamians, and, yes, we care about football. But we also care deeply about tradition, story, and character — and that means we care about books. Anyone who says otherwise just hasn’t bothered to check.

Buying a Kindle? You’re Playing with Fire

Do you trust your every book selection to Amazon?

This morning, my Twitter feed has been “ablaze” (I know, terrible pun) with news of Amazon’s new Kindle Fire and the drop in price of their original Kindle. As a device, I can see why Kindle is appealing. But I won’t buy one, because Amazon’s unethical, short-sighted and greedy manipulation of eBook content is something I can’t stomach supporting. Not even if it’s convenient. Not even if it saves me money.

It’s no secret that I run a bookshop that only sells physical books, so maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot when I say I like and read eBooks, too. I mean, come on — I can’t imagine any book lover not being at least a little tempted by a magic tablet that will carry an entire library anywhere. I think the future includes a mix of eBooks, for when you need convenience, and physical books, for when you have access to a cup of tea and a good armchair. I even buy eBooks for myself — I just buy physical books more.

The problem isn’t the eBook. The problem is Amazon. They’ve set up the Kindle so that every book you read on the thing has to be bought directly from Amazon. This is great for Amazon, terrible for their customers. Would you buy an iPod if every song it played had to be bought directly from Apple? No listening to CDs you bought in high school; no picking up an album from a band you saw at Bottletree last week; and, I guess it goes without saying, no buying from independent music shops.

In fact, Amazon is weaving these nasty tactics through their entire digital market. Publish your book for Kindle, and Amazon owns the rights — including the printed rights. So if you write the next Harry Potter and Scholastic wants to print it, they can’t, because the rights belong to Amazon. They’re even publishing books that are available exclusively through Amazon, so you can’t buy or read them anywhere else. If you want to read those books, you’ll have to buy another device to do it.

This presents a huge problem for the reader. If we as consumers let Amazon get away with this, how long will it be before Apple does the same with the iPad and Barnes and Noble follows suit with the Nook? How long will it be before the movies you watch and the music you listen to is device-specific, so that your options are either not to see a popular new movie or to buy a new device just to play it?

Amazon (arguably) has a right to do this, and maybe it’s the free market at work. But part of having a free market is exercising our rights as consumers to shut down policies that we don’t agree with. One way to do this is to write or call Amazon and let them know what you think. But the more powerful way to vote is with your money — don’t buy a Kindle.

You can go Kindle-free and still enjoy eBooks. I buy my eBooks from Alabama Booksmith at their website, and I read them with a free app on my iPhone. You can also read them on an iPad (Perry Computer in Brookwood Mall is a great local vendor), on a Nook, or on any other eReader … except, of course, for the Kindle.