December 9, 2011

Outraged booksellers, other retail groups, respond to Amazon’s “Price Check Day”


Booksellers exploded with a mix of rage and inventive countermeasures yesterday in response to Amazon‘s announcement that it would pay people $15 to walk out of brick-and-mortar stores and shop at on what it’s calling “Price Check Day” next Saturday. (See the earlier MobyLives report.)

Writing in Time Magazine, novelist Emma Straub, who also works in Brooklyn’s Book Court bookstore, says in a piece called “Amazon’s Evil Price Check App: Kicking Bookstores While They’re Down,”

This makes me want to ask people to check their cellphones at the door. If Amazon wants Saturday to be a Price Check day, then we should all do a version of the same. Find something you want to buy on Amazon, whether it’s a book, or a television set, or a snow shovel, and then find a place to buy it in person. And about those bookstores — those holy, papery pockets of goodness and light — the next time you visit one, especially in these next weeks, buy something, right there on the spot. Chances are, we’ll even talk to you about it, wrap it for you, and send you off with a smile. That’s our job, to put books into your hand and to know that you’ll be happy together. Some things in life are more precious than a five dollar bill.

Third Street Books of McMinnville, Oregon has declared Saturday “Ditch Amazon Day,” according to its blog. They’re offering the same deal that Amazon is, but in reverse:  Bring in proof that you’ve walked out of Amazon — i.e., closed your account — they’ll give you 15% off plus a $5 gift certificate.

Meanwhile, on his blog, Jarek Steele, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, writes, “Well, here it is. Irrefutable evidence that Amazon embodies corporate greed.” Amazon Price Check, he says,

… illustrates what virtually every bookseller, small business owner and sales tax payer in multiple states already knows — Amazon’s culture of corporate sleaze knows no bounds and it will not rest until it is the only retailer left standing.”

… I can offer this — if you shop at my bookstore, I will not pay you five dollars to spy on my competitors. In fact, I’ll probably recommend them if we can’t get what you need. I won’t degrade your favorite author by giving away a lifetime of her work so that I can sell electronics. I will not make you feel bad for reading traditional books, nor will I mock you for choosing an e-reader, e-book or anything else I offer even if I don’t personally like it. After all, customers are people, not pawns. We still like to shop with people who respect us.”

There was more, as a Shelf Awareness post noted:

Author Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) tweeted his own strategy: “I like to do the Reverse Amazon: hear about a book, read about it on Amazon, then go buy it at my local bookstore! It’s fun! #ReadLocal.”

On Facebook, Occupy Amazon: Shop Local offered a personal challenge from Kim Gavin of Powell’s Books, Portland, Ore.: “Physical retail establishments are not merely showrooms for products. Your local indie store offers you knowledgeable employees that don’t adhere to a mathematical formula to provide recommendations, physical products to peruse at your leisure, and a place to meet with members of your community…. I personally challenge everyone to buy local this Saturday (and every day thereafter). It’s worth $5 to keep our local businesses alive.”

The outrage wasn’t limited to book people, either. [Note: While Amazon’s original announcement did not specify that bookstores were to be included it Price Check Day, it did not specify that they weren’t either. Actually, the announcement seemed to indicate everything the site sells was included, but that the categories were too numerous to list. Regardless, the world of retail seemed united yesterday in seeing it as a direct threat.]

The Retail Industry Leaders Association issued a statement saying Price Check Day was an exacerbation of its campaign to “evade collecting state sales taxes.” Says the statement,

Amazon’s aggressive promotion of its Price Check App shows the lengths they are willing to go to exploit this tax loophole, and is a stark reminder of why Congress needs to act to protect retailers on Main Street.  A failure to act is an implicit endorsement of a subsidy of Amazon, a subsidy that distorts the free market and puts jobs on Main Street at risk.

And the Alliance for Main Street Fairness, according to a Los Angeles Times report, says, “This app is simply another ploy by Amazon to exploit the loophole that allows them to evade collecting state sales taxes.”

The most succinct yet wide-ranging riposte of them all may be the one from Roxane J. Coady of R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut. In a piece for Publishers Weekly she calls “A Modest Proposal for Amazon,” she writes

Whereas a recent survey by Codex reported that 28% of purchases done online result from information gathered at a bricks-and-mortar stores.

Whereas Amazon totally understands that this is occurring and is offering $5 to gather competitive price information while customers are in aforementioned stores.

Whereas bricks and mortar bookstores spend countless hours writing emails and newsletters and giving speeches and appearing on radio and TV promoting books they love and those books are then purchased at Amazon.

Whereas Amazon defacto sells based on our information and staffing.

Therefore, beginning immediately, we suggest  that Amazon pay an affiliate fee to such bricks and mortar stores.  The calculation for such fee shall be equal to 33% of the sales from Amazon customers whose zip codes are within a 20 mile radius of aforementioned bricks and mortar store.

Very truly yours,
Roxanne J Coady
RJJulia Booksellers (Madison, Ct.)

No doubt this is just the tip of the iceberg, though. What about you other booksellers out there — what are you doing about Price Check Day?

And while I’m at it — hello to all my readers at Amazon itself. Aren’t any of you troubled by this hostile action your employer has taken against the retailers in your community? Let me know. I promise to protect your confidentiality.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives