KUOW Public Radio, Megan Farmer
In March 2018, radio station KUOW hosted a debate that posed the question, “Is Amazon good for Seattle?” In a way, it’s what Joshua McNichols and Carolyn Adolph asked throughout the first season of their podcast, Prime(d). The answer is as cloudy as Pacific Northwest’s winter, which is one reason the show is returning for a second season.
When it comes to the relationship status between Seattle and Amazon, it’s complicated for a lot of residents. When we say the company’s headquarters is in Seattle, we don’t mean in Redmond, Washington, as with Microsoft, or Issaquah, like Costco. Amazon’s campus is a mile from the iconic Pike Place Market. A lot of Amazon’s workforce — many of whom are young and have six-figure salaries — have moved into the area, causing rents to rise and traffic to snarl.
“In the U.S. right now, many cities are struggling with those same things, but in Seattle it was accelerated by the growth that we experienced here,” McNichols told Digital Trends. “And Amazon was a part of that growth.”
“In a way, this whole ecosystem faces some of these problems of being exclusive.”
The first season of Prime(d) began when Amazon announced its hunt for a second headquarters, and the podcast acted as a bit of a first alert to the winning city of the pains and prosperity that could befall it. After the company chose Queens, New York, and Crystal City, Virginia, as its co-second headquarters, McNichols and Adolph traveled to the cities and wondered if Amazon Go stores would soon replace bodegas. These cashierless shops require Amazon’s app, don’t take cash, and don’t accept food stamps. The second episode of Prime(d) season two focuses on Amazon’s push into the grocery business.
“In a way this whole ecosystem faces some of these problems of being exclusive,” McNichols said. “And if the service eventually displaces grocery stores or at least makes them a lot less common, what does that mean? Does that mean now only people who can afford to pay for the service have access to groceries and everybody else is in a food desert?” McNichols doesn’t think we’re quite there yet. Enough people like to pick out their own produce, for one. “There’s probably some deeply seated human reasons for that,” he said, like not wanting to get sick from rotting radishes.
Anyone who’s tried to buy mint on Kentucky Derby weekend probably knows grocery stores aren’t the best at anticipating trends. Some Amazon data might help curb food waste. “In grocery stores, at any time they’re out of stock of a whole bunch of stuff and they’re having to throw away all the stuff that people didn’t buy,” McNichols said.
Between its purchase of Whole Foods and services such as Prime Fresh and Prime Pantry, Amazon wants to find its way into your fridge — even as far as having a delivery person putting away the milk with its Key system. Amazon Fresh started in Seattle in 2007, but Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos have been interested in grocery delivery for much longer.
“They’ve been kind of obsessed with this idea of the last-mile delivery since before the dot-com boom,” McNichols said. In 1999, the company invested in Homegrocer.com, a Portland, Oregon-based grocery delivery company that didn’t survive the dot-com bust. But while Amazon Fresh was halting delivery in several states in 2017, stores like Kroger and Walmart were rolling out suburban-friendly options that let shoppers order online and have items delivered to their cars. But that doesn’t mean Amazon won’t rebound, McNichols said.
“Industries shake in their boots when they hear Amazon is finally going to start doing something in some area.”
“Even though it kind of looks like they’re behind the ball in coming to some of these places where Walmart or Kroger have made these advances, their volume of patents, the length of time they’ve been thinking about it — these things have a great momentum and are part of the reason why industries shake in their boots when they hear Amazon is finally going to start doing something in some area,” he said.
That kind of long-term thinking is a hallmark of Amazon.
“Jeff Bezos has said before that they like to ramp up to things over seven years, and they’re willing to look at things with a seven-year time horizon,” McNichols said. “That that’s when they expect them to start paying off.”
Because it’s one of the most valuable companies in the world, Amazon can afford a few missteps that would cripple other enterprises. It can also take the time to learn about an industry before wading in too deep. Take fashion. In an episode of Prime(d), McNichols and Adolph spoke with a woman who was training her replacement. Nothing so unusual in that, except her replacement was Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, who was learning how to tell a cute outfit from a fashion disaster.
McNichols said Prime(d) tries to look at Amazon from two perspectives, that of consumer and citizen.
“As consumers, we tend to interpret the things that it does as amazing because it really wins when your criteria is, how fast can they ship it to me, can they get it to me for a reasonable price, and can they offer a wide selection,” he said. “But when you look at it as a citizen you bring additional layers of skepticism.”
“As consumers, we tend to interpret the things that it does as amazing.”
That’s when you start wondering about warehouse conditions and privacy issues. But there’s a third way of looking at Amazon, from the perspective of the seller. In an episode of Patriot Act where he cops to being way more lazy than woke, Hasan Minhaj details how sellers need to sell on Amazon to survive but have to surrender data around their best-selling products in the process. The company can then cut out the middleman and reach out directly to manufacturers or, if it’s something like yoga pants, create its own version.
“We know that they’re learning using their algorithms from their own sellers and they know when something is hot, they can start making it themselves,” McNichols said.
But however Amazon’s competitors and neighbors feel about it, what keeps the company from antitrust regulations is its customers being happy with its prices and services. Of course, things can always change, McNichols said: “Facebook comes up in an episode as an example of what happens when that trust erodes and how quickly things can come crashing down for a company.”