April 23, 2014

Amazon enjoys over half of the UK’s online spending, wins the hearts and minds of the British


From the documentary: Bezos laughing while dozens of employees flee the building

A BBC documentary, Business Boomers, has revealed that Amazon’s business in the UK is not only booming but dominating online retail. According to the programme, British consumers bought £4.5 billion worth of Amazon goods last year, which amounts to £70 being spent by every man, woman and child in the country. This means that more than half of all online retail sales happen on Amazon in Britain today.

While these statistics are eye-popping, they mostly confirm what we already know: consumers aren’t stupid, they’ve found an everything store that will sell them stuff for cheap and deliver it to their door for free. So why would they shop anywhere else online?

But what wasn’t expected was the emotional ties British consumers are so ready to build with an ugly website and its inhuman transactional system. This was more disturbing.

In one thought-experiment, a classroom teacher asked a group of 11-year olds to think of the word Amazon and then place a marker under the image that had occurred to them first: the river, or the online retailer. The majority of children thought of the retailer. Next up the owners of a small business waxed lyrical about how Amazon had taken their company into the 21st Century, smiling and nodding their heads as though Amazon had done them a favour, just to be nice.

But nothing compared to Nick Spalding, a one-time press officer for the police, who started self-publishing his novels on Amazon, ended up selling 430,000 books, and got a six-figure publishing deal from a traditional publishing house. “I love Amazon”, he proclaimed, “they bought me a house.”

Luckily, France’s Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti (to whom we’ve written what amounts to love poetry here and here) was on hand to shame the British through reminding us what is at stake. Filippetti, an author herself, talked of the need for what the French call “bibliodiversity”: “books are an ecosystem, a fragile ecosystem”, she insisted, before criticizing Amazon for lowering prices to push other retailers, namely bookshops, out of business.

As though to prove this point, the programme spliced together home-movie style footage of Jeff Bezos laughing maniacally apparently apropos of nothing, but surely because he was thinking about the destruction his company leaves in its wake. Shel Kaphar, an ex-Amazon engineer appeared on screen looking fraught. “Frankly I loved Jeff”, he said before continuing, his face darkening, “…but working down the hallway from his laugh after a while it can, you know, get to grate on one.” Although he didn’t say so, it was clear Kaphar had left his job at Amazon purely because he couldn’t stand another minute of listening to Bezos laugh.

It’s a national shame that the British has fallen head over heels with a retailer that has repeatedly dodged taxes in this country and has been proven to abuse its citizens though debilitating working conditions, as a Panorama documentary showed just last year. But I live in hope that if enough British people hear Bezos laugh, they too will turn away in distaste, reconsider their options, and vow never to visit Amazon again.


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.