I forget how much of an unbearable metropolitan elitist I am sometimes. When I see a programme called The Truth About Amazon, I automatically think it’s going to be an excoriating investigation into some of the alleged abuses of its workers. These are so many that, taken together, they would amount to something remarkably close to servitude, even before the new claims of failures to protect its people (or provide such things as hazard pay) started since the pandemic began. Or its viciously anti-union stance, or how a company making £11bn a year pays less tax than a pet hamster, or whether the invisible hand of the market is really enough to keep western capitalism from ultimately destroying us all …
You get, I’m sure, the idea. In fact, last night’s The Truth About Amazon on Channel 4, presented by Sabrina Grant and Helen Skelton, was a Supershoppers special, attacking it from that programme’s usual consumer rights perspective. This will probably do at least as much to problematise punters’ immediate relationship with the retail giant-of-giants as would another handwringing article about its tentacular reach into more and more aspects of our lives. Not to mention Jeff Bezos’s likely ultimate plan to strangle us all in our beds as we sleep and turn our bodies into fuel for his behemoth once it gains sentience.
I’m sorry, where was I? Oh yes. Amazon being held to account as if it were an ordinary retailer coming under Supershopper scrutiny. Grant and Skelton began gently (and traditionally) by introducing themselves to two families, both heavy users of the Amazon drug, and offering them ways to save some money. Sharon and Ian estimate they spend about £200 a month at the online store but it’s actually around £800. The first scales begin to fall from their eyes when they are shown how to buy products more cheaply from Amazon’s sites in other countries and are introduced to price tracker websites that show them how even prices here, which they had assumed were fixed (and by extension fair) actually fluctuate wildly. Or rather, not wildly at all but precisely as dictated by the algorithmic intelligence pulsing away behind everything else Amazon does.
Then it’s on through the possibility of buying counterfeit and/or dangerous goods. This hits home particularly with Prince and Abby, who buy all their toddler Beulah’s toys on the site and is a reminder of the old adage: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is; and the resulting profits to a third-party seller could be being funnelled into organised crime. Gum on that, Beulah!
Good and bad reviews can be bought for your own or rivals’ products; a Which? investigation suggests that the “Amazon choice” designation isn’t worth the pixels it’s printed in; Alexa is recording and storing far more than you thought; and Prime Video accepts content from anyone – including the likes of Alex Jones, the US conspiracy theorist who was banned from Twitter and Facebook for his claims that the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax.
Obviously it was a programme limited in scope – the segment showing Abby and Prince how to use Amazon’s barcode scanner app to drive a bargain on the high street, for example, was presented without any comment on the ethics of making a bricks-and-mortar shop with substantially greater overheads (and probably tax liabilities) compete with Goliath. But it covered a lot of ground and surely introduced a lot of doubt to anyone watching who had hitherto thought, or at least hoped, that someone, somewhere along the line had a handle on what Bezos does with his creation.
That said, their journey through the tangled undergrowth of Amazon’s jungle of tactics seemed to have mixed effects on the four travellers themselves. Beulah’s parents seemed to have taken to heart the necessity of not placing any more blind trust in the retailer, but Sharon and Ian seemed more taken with the technology that would now allow them to get better bargains.
Amazon is having a great pandemic. It has taken on 100,000 (woefully unprotected, if multiple reports are true) new workers as actual shops close to protect their staff and customers. Even more rapidly than Bezos’s wildest dreams allowed, it has become the only game in town for sating people’s needs and wants in lockdown. Bezos at the beginning wanted to call his new site Relentless.com. Good luck bargaining with that.