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  1. #1
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    [EN] Amazon and Whole Foods: Follow the Strategy (and the Money)

    Michael A. Cusumano
    Communications of the ACM, Vol. 60 No. 10, Pages 24-26
    10.1145/3132722

    In June 2017, Amazon announced it would acquire Whole Foods, the national grocery chain with nearly 500 stores, for $13.7 billion in cash. This is less than Whole Foods' 2016 revenues of $15.7 billion, which included $507 million in net profits (3.2% of revenues). Whole Foods became a takeover target because of declining sales and profits as well as increasing competition in the cutthroat supermarket business.1 By comparison, Amazon's 2016 revenues were $136 billion, up 27% over 2015, with operating profits of $4.1 billion and net profits of $2.4 billion (1.8% of revenues). Amazon's market value of around $480 billion is 3.5 times last year's revenues. It is buying Whole Foods for less than one times its last year's revenues (0.85%). Given that Whole Foods is actually more profitable than Amazon, which plows most of its potential profits into new business development and expansion, and since Amazon does not have to dilute its stock, this seems like a great deal for CEO Jeff Bezos. But is it? And what does this acquisition say about Amazon's strategy?

    Launched by Bezos in 1994 as a pioneering online bookstore, Amazon has always made deft use of physical assets as well as the Internet. It soon offered two million or more titles—far more than actual bookstores were able to stock. Later in the 1990s, Amazon added a platform service that linked buyers who wanted less-popular books with third-party sellers that held the inventory, a business now called Amazon Marketplace. Unlike Google and other Internet platforms, Amazon was never a completely virtual business. Bezos operated out of a warehouse that intercepted shipments from distributors and then re-sent the books to customers. The company also began to buy large numbers of best-seller books and stock them so Amazon could benefit from scale economies in purchasing and earn premiums from delivering the books quickly.

    Eventually, Amazon expanded to other popular items suitable for sale over the Internet, ranging from electronic goods to digital content (music and videos) to clothing. Amazon now sells some two million items.4 A decade ago it also launched Amazon Web Services (AWS) to sell computing and storage capacity from its massive data centers. In addition, Bezos experimented with his own products such as the successful Kindle tablet for e-books, the failed Fire smartphone, and the intriguing Echo/Alexa digital assistant and speaker device. More recently, Amazon opened a bookstore in Seattle to complement the online store, and it is experimenting with new technology (Amazon Go) that eliminates cashiers.

    Until now, Amazon's pieces fit together pretty well. Now the company is moving deeper into the low-margin grocery business. We have to wonder why.

    (continua)

  2. #2
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    Amazon's financials are not particularly strong compared to other leading technology companies and Internet platforms, and mix products and services with varying profit rates. In 2016, sales of products accounted for 70% of Amazon's revenues.2 Sales of services (mostly from selling third-party goods on Amazon Marketplace, revenues from AWS, some allocations from Amazon Prime membership fees, and some advertising) accounted for the other 30%. AWS produced only $12.2 billion or 9% of revenues (compared to 5% in 2014) but a whopping $3.1 billion (74%) of operating profits. By contrast, Amazon lost $1.3 billion on overseas sales of $44 billion, nearly one-third of revenues. It is also estimated that Amazon loses up to $2 billion per year on Prime Memberships.6 With 70- to 80-million members, Prime generated $6.8 billion in 2016 revenue.5 Prime offers free shipping, a lot of free digital content, and other benefits for a $99 annual fee or less in some cases. The free services are costly but encourage customer loyalty and seem to drive long-term sales growth.

    Bezos' interest in groceries goes back a decade, when he launched Amazon Fresh. Why? Volume. The annual grocery business in the U.S. alone was worth some $1.3 trillion in 2016, with Walmart (which has 4,500 stores) having the largest market share at 18%.7 Amazon and Whole Foods together would have a market share of about 3.5%.11 Amazon has figured out how to sell perishable and non-perishable groceries via the Web. It is not clear the company has figured out how to do this at a profit. Amazon can learn from Whole Foods how to sell groceries to upscale customers, but this market is shrinking.

    Many customers are the same, however, so Amazon can try cross-marketing. About 62% of Whole Foods customers are Amazon Prime members.9 Perhaps Amazon can convert the 38% of Whole Foods customers who are not yet Prime members. Perhaps Amazon can expand the reach of Whole Foods through its Web presence and online delivery services. Perhaps the Whole Foods network of stores and warehouses can help Amazon in storing products or handling returns from Web purchases, or showcasing products for sale.

    Are there significant synergies between selling books and selling lettuce, or between warehousing groceries and other items? Maybe, but maybe not. Synergies on paper are always difficult to realize in acquisitions. That is why, in many studies, at least two-thirds of acquisitions fail. In this case, Amazon will find that economies of scale and scope in the grocery business are not like the digital world. There may even be some economic penalties with expansion or automation if Amazon cannot maintain the quality and service that are hallmarks of Whole Foods.

    Another argument against the acquisition is that the more sectors into which Amazon diversifies or integrates vertically, the more it resembles a conglomerate with no particular specialization or competitive advantage.8 Perhaps Amazon should use the $13.7 billion to expand AWS. This is Amazon's most profitable business, but it is subject to intense competition from Microsoft, IBM and other companies.

    Although the Federal Trade Commission approved the takeover in August, lawyers and analysts have raised long-term anti-trust concerns.6 Amazon disrupted the competition by pricing physical books, e-books, electronics, diapers, digital media, and other goods low—and sometimes below cost—to gain market share. Then it benefitted from increasing scale economies and positive feedback loops associated with digital platforms and network effects (see "The Evolution of Platform Thinking," Communications, January 2010). That is, the more goods and services Amazon sells, the more customers it has, and the more likely it becomes that more buyers and sellers will use Amazon, especially if competitors vanish or falter. With weak or no competitors, Amazon is also free to raise prices.

    Bezos' goal does not seem to be profit, at least not in the short term. Rather, he seems intent on expanding Amazon's reach. As noted in the title of a 2013 book on the company, Bezos wants Amazon to be "The Everything Store."10 Whole Foods fits this strategy of retail expansion. It also fits Bezos' apparent belief that, to expand its reach, Amazon needs to increase its physical presence. Why physical? Follow the money. Nearly 44% of U.S. consumers go first to Amazon when they want to make a purchase.6 However, the vast majority of purchases we make (about 92%) still occur in brick-and-mortar stores, not over the Internet.3 The value of this acquisition will be in how effectively and broadly Amazon is able to utilize the new physical platform it is buying.



    References

    1. Abrams, R. and Creswell, J. Amazon deal for Whole Foods starts a supermarket war. The Wall Street Journal (June 16, 2017).

    2. Amazon.com, Inc. Form 10-K Annual Report.

    3. Bray, H. Whole Foods deal fits into Amazon's plan to offer one-stop shopping. Boston Globe (June 16, 2017).

    4. Elgan, M. This is why Amazon will open physical bookstores. Computerworld (Feb. 8, 2016).

    5. Gustafson, K. Amazon hints at one of its best kept secrets: How many prime members it has. CNBC.com (Feb. 17, 2017).

    6. Khan, L. Amazon's antitrust paradox. Yale Law Journal (Jan. 2017), 751–752.

    7. Russell, K. and Seshagiri, A. Amazon is trying to do (and sell) everything. The New York Times (June 16, 2017).

    8. Sorkin, A. Conglomerates didn't die. They look like Amazon. The New York Times (June 19, 2017).

    9. Stevens, L. and Haddon, H. Big prize in Amazon-Whole Foods deal: Data. The Wall Street Journal (June 20, 2017).

    10. Stone, B. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Little, Brown, NY, 2013.

    11. Wingfield, N. and de la Merced, M. Amazon to buy Whole Foods for 13.4 billion. The New York Times (June 16, 2017).


    Author

    Michael A. Cusumano is a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founding director of the Tokyo Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center at Tokyo University of Science.

  3. #3
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    Conglomerates Didn’t Die. They Look Like Amazon.

    “Your margin is my opportunity”

    Andrew Ross Sorkin
    JUNE 19, 2017

    The conglomerate was supposed to be dead, a relic of a bygone era of corporate America. Investors, we have been repeatedly told, want smaller, nimbler, more focused companies.

    And yet there is Amazon.

    Just when it seemed that sprawling empire building had gone out of vogue — eulogies were written last week for General Electric after Jeffrey Immelt, its chief executive, retired under pressure from shareholders — Amazon announced that it was buying Whole Foods for $13.4 billion.

    The deal will put Amazon in the brick-and-mortar grocery store business, which will exist alongside an ever-increasing bevy of disparate interests: the selling of everything from electronics to toothpaste online; payments and credit; cloud computing; production and distribution of movies and television programming; book publishing; shipping and logistics operations; and on and on.

    It is actually a myth that conglomerates disappeared. They are now just dressed up with a bit of Silicon Valley flair, and dress down in the boardroom, with chief executives who wear sneakers.

    Amazon is just one of these new-economy conglomerates. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is another. Facebook is quickly becoming a conglomerate, too.

    Michael C. Jensen, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, famously — and successfully — made the case in the 1970s and 1980s that conglomerates like RJR, which owned tobacco and food brands like Nabisco, wasted “billions in unproductive capital expenditures and organizational inefficiencies.”

    That is very likely true of today’s tech-enabled conglomerates, too, which are spending, and often losing, tens of billions of dollars annually on all sorts of projects and acquisitions that may or may not turn out to be successful. But investors are seemingly willing to give these new behemoths a free pass in the name of growth and innovation — until they aren’t.

    If there is any lesson from the last breed of industrial conglomerates, it is that there is a natural life cycle to most of them.

    The model begins like this: A company that is successful in one area turns itself into a conglomerate by using its free cash flow to finance the development or acquisition of businesses in other areas — at first, ones that are similar to their current business, and later often ones that are farther afield. And then the company does this again and again.

    When such an economic machine works, it works extraordinarily well. But when any one of the major levers in the machine breaks or even stalls, the entire enterprise comes under pressure. Shareholders start complaining that the sum of the parts would be worth more separately than together.

    “You look at companies that got really big in the world, the record is not very good,” Charles T. Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway — the world’s largest conglomerate — told investors several years ago.

    His business partner, Warren Buffett, stunned shareholders this year when he suggested that he expected shares of Berkshire to rise immediately after his death because of speculation that the company would be broken up and thus would be worth more. (He and Mr. Munger both believe that Berkshire is better off intact, but Mr. Buffett thinks investors’ knee-jerk reaction will be to believe the opposite.)

    When it comes to Amazon (or Alphabet, or any of the new conglomerates), the question is whether there is something fundamentally different about these businesses given their grounding in digital information — especially as they expand into complex brick-and-mortar operations like upscale supermarkets.

    In an age of big data and artificial intelligence, are businesses that look disparate really similar? And can one company’s leadership really oversee so many different businesses? When does it become too big to manage?

    Google’s own internal list of top-10 principles seems to include an anti-conglomerate provision: “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.”

    Leaving aside the question of whether that maxim may have been more suitable to the Google of a decade ago, it certainly hasn’t stopped the company from jumping into all sorts of businesses outside its flagship search and advertising business. Some of these businesses — which include Android, YouTube, Waze, Nest Labs, and self-driving cars — have been more successful than others. Most of these were brought under the Google umbrella through acquisition, evidence of how the company has used the enormous proceeds of its advertising business to subsidize its entrance into all sorts of other enterprises.

    Facebook, too, is expanding its offerings through acquisition, buying Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus VR. And for now, there are no obvious signs that looking after a wider array of businesses is weakening the management at Alphabet, Facebook or, for that matter, Amazon.

    In fact, a recent article in the Yale Law Journal made a compelling case that Amazon has built perhaps the ultimate economic mousetrap — one impervious to the natural life cycle of a conglomerate, but one that might ultimately prove to be anticompetitive.

    The author, Lina M. Khan, a Yale Law student who has written about antitrust law and competition policy, argued that Amazon had created a “platform market” and can use its size and scale to subsidize its entrance into new businesses through predatory pricing.

    “The economics of platform markets create incentives for a company to pursue growth over profits, a strategy that investors have rewarded,” Ms. Khan wrote. “Under these conditions, predatory pricing becomes highly rational — even as existing doctrine treats it as irrational and therefore implausible.”

    Even more provocatively, she contends that Amazon’s role as both a distributor and cloud provider for many of its competitors gives it an unfair advantage. “This dual role also enables a platform to exploit information collected on companies using its services to undermine them as competitors,” Ms. Khan wrote.

    Amazon has thus far been left alone by regulators because it has helped reduce prices of most products. It is not a natural monopoly. “Can prices ever be ‘too low’?” the Federal Trade Commission asks on its website. “The short answer is yes, but not very often.”

    On its webpage about predatory pricing, the agency explains how the government thinks about competition. “A firm’s independent decision to reduce prices to a level below its own costs does not necessarily injure competition, and, in fact, may simply reflect particularly vigorous competition.”

    That may be true. But in Amazon’s case, it has the potential to become so dominant in so many areas that its impact could be more than simply lowering prices for consumers; it could put large companies out of business.

    Were that to happen, this new breed of Silicon Valley conglomerates may become more powerful — and resilient — than the 20th-century conglomerates of yore.

    If Amazon were to use its acquisition of Whole Foods, along with the profits from its other businesses, to lower prices so much that it put out of business a company like Walmart, with its 1.5 million United States employees, would that be a good outcome? Or is that just a natural part of capitalism?

    The view of Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is clear. The man who is assembling the 21st century’s most fearsome new conglomerate once explained his view of competition this way: “Your margin is my opportunity.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/b...glomerate.html

  4. #4
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    The view of Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is clear. The man who is assembling the 21st century’s most fearsome new conglomerate once explained his view of competition this way: “Your margin is my opportunity.”
    Ironicamente, a margem da AWS é a oportunidade perfeita de milhares de concorrentes

  5. #5
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    ICYMI: Pedro Herz, dono da Livraria Cultura

    O importante é saber que empreendedor não é profissão.

    21 de setembro de 2017

    Em 1938, um casal judeu deixa a Alemanha nazista e embarca em um navio com destino praticamente desconhecido. Os dois chegam à Argentina, mas conseguem mudar para o Brasil, especificamente para a cidade de São Paulo, a procura de novas oportunidades. Eva Herz, a esposa, começa a alugar livros para imigrantes vizinhos e, aos poucos, constrói uma das livrarias mais conhecidas do País. Parece resumo de livro, mas essa é a origem da Livraria Cultura e a história dos pais de Pedro Herz, herdeiro e dono da marca, considerada um reduto para os amantes dos livros. O que começou na sala de casa se transformou em 18 lojas espalhadas por oito estados. Em entrevista ao Estadão, Pedro Herz, um dos palestrantes da Semana Pró-PME, fala sobre a principal chave para empreender: honrar compromisso.

    Como você enxerga o empreendedorismo no Brasil?

    Acho que se confunde muito o que é empreendedorismo. Se você muda o caminho para voltar pra casa e ganha 30 minutos a mais no seu dia você está empreendendo. Empreender é descobrir algo novo, uma nova forma de fazer. Existem várias maneiras de empreender. Você pode se juntar com seu amigo e abrir um bar ou formar uma banda. O importante é saber que empreendedor não é profissão.

    Nesse momento, muitos estão se arriscando e começando a empreender. O que você diria para esses futuros empreendedores?

    Eu só aprendi com os meus erros, até porque os acertos são intuitivos. Acredito que a gente tem que honrar o compromisso que assume. Parece que a palavra compromisso foi erradicada do nosso vocabulário. Quando eu empreendo, eu assumo um compromisso com o meu colaborador que está ao meu lado e tenho que remunerá-lo por isso. Eu também tenho um compromisso com o meu cliente, eu tenho que entregar o que eu prometo, o cliente é meu chefe. Tem que saber fazer aquilo o que você se propõe. Como eu vou abrir um restaurante se eu não sei ligar o fogão? Você tem que se preparar para isso, tem que trabalhar, nem que seja de garçom. E tem que saber como é lidar com dinheiro, como você vai bancar seu negócio, como vai amortizar o déficit. Não tem fórmula, é preciso vocação e capacidade. Não existe realidade imediata, não tem copy/paste.

    Como enxerga esse momento extremamente tecnológico para o mercado literário?

    Nunca tive problemas. Em 1994, com a chegada da internet, fui pioneiro no mercado. Você tem que inovar. Sobre os readers, eles são uma nova mídia a favor do consumidor. Eu posso ler um livro que pesa 1 kg em um aparelho de 80 gramas, ou seja, é extremamente confortável para o leitor.

    Com essa facilidade dos readers, as vendas de e-books estão crescendo?

    Pelo contrário, estão caindo vertiginosamente. Aparelho não faz leitor. Leitor se faz em casa. Se, cada vez mais casais não querem ter filhos, teremos menos leitores, porque nós estamos mal na escola. Precisamos tentar descobrir o que é ler. Eu acho que faz parte de ouvir, nós não ouvimos mais o que o outro diz. Nós só estamos falando, não conseguimos ficar calados. E digitar é falar. Se você entra em um elevador, 100% das pessoas estão falando e ninguém está ouvindo. E isso acontece em todos os espaços. Outro dia tive que dar um berro no cinema, é uma loucura. E se eu vou ver um filme, um espetáculo de música, se eu leio um livro, isso é ouvir. Se eu escuto, aquilo pode me tocar, me emocionar e então eu vou comprar aquela música, vou até reler aquele texto.

    O que pensa dos escritores que estão publicando de forma independente?

    Ele está assumindo um risco. Publicar um livro é uma coisa, o problema é encontrar o leitor. Nós temos um consumo muito baixo de livro per capita.

    http://pme.estadao.com.br/noticias/p...02010216,0.htm

  6. #6
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    Big Tech’s Biggest Risk

    Dan Gallagher
    Sept. 27, 2017

    What can stop Big Tech? That’s becoming a $3 trillion question.

    The combined market capitalization of the five most valuable companies in the world is fast approaching that mark, having risen more than $580 billion since the start of the year. That 25% gain—more than double what the broader S&P 500 has returned for the year—is a fair wager by investors that the mammoth scale and deep pockets of these five tech giants make them tough even for innovative competitors to dislodge.

    But that’s the point where governments often target big technology companies seen as too dominant in their respective spaces. Microsoft , Intel Corp. and Qualcomm are just a few examples of past moves, while Google is enmeshed in its own battle now. Facebook seems likely to be next for its role in spreading political information—and misinformation.

    This is a risk that investors shouldn’t ignore. While regulatory changes are unpredictable and can take a long time to germinate, their effect can produce new costs and—in some cases—slow growth. Just ask banks how much it costs to comply with “know your customer” rules to curb money laundering and terrorism financing. Any changes to the status quo are bad news for Google and Facebook, both of which have been handsomely rewarded by investors precisely for their ability to generate both attractive growth and rich profit margins.

    Between them, Google and Facebook generated about $106 billion in advertising revenue last year. That’s roughly double in size from four years ago, and Wall Street projects it will nearly double again in three years. Despite rising costs for driving traffic, Google’s core business has kept its operating margin averaging above 30% over the last eight quarters. Facebook has averaged 43%.

    New regulations could disrupt that momentum. Lawmakers are already discussing potential rules for campaign advertising on social networks. Recent investigations by news outlets such as ProPublica and Buzzfeed have shown how material such as anti-Semitic content can be targeted to a sympathetic audience. Those are especially painful revelations, since the companies’ hands-off models are a big reason why Google and Facebook generate much more revenue-per-employee than most other advertising-driven media businesses.

    In fairness, passage of any significant new regulations in the U.S. seem a longshot in the current political climate. But Europe’s crackdown has already had an effect on Google. Parent company Alphabet’s shares have slipped 3% in the last three months since the EU first handed down a record-size fine in late June.

    Facebook, meanwhile, slumped nearly 5% on Monday following news reports about Russian sources in funding “divisive” content during the election. The company is working with federal investigators to get to the bottom of the matter. But to head off more onerous regulations, Facebook may find that even two billion friends aren’t quite enough.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-tec...isk-1506504601

  7. #7
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    The Next Hot Trend: Never-Ending Labor in Dystopian Warehouses



    Allie Conti
    Sep 27 2017

    As online retail has become a way of life, the classic American shopping mall has been presented with seemingly inevitable extinction. Mom-and-pop stores succumbing to big-box competitors is an old story, but these days even retail behemoths like J.Crew, Sears, and Kmart are in trouble. One recent casualty on this front was Toys R Us, which announced last week it was filing for bankruptcy; observers were quick to argue e-commerce was at least one key factor.

    Meanwhile, as pensions have increasingly been replaced by 401(k) programs that can run out before death, an untold number of Americans now work until they physically cannot continue to do so. But with brick-and-mortar storefronts on the outs, employment options for low-wage workers are shrinking. What's a retiree supposed to do in order to supplement a measly Social Security check when the local JC Penney shuts down?

    According to a new book by journalist Jessica Bruder, their best bet might be joining the shocking number of seniors who travel the country working seasonal odd jobs at places like Amazon's network of warehouses. Bruder took to the road, working undercover at one such facility in Texas and as a sugar beet harvester. She also interviewed scores of elderly, van-dwelling Americans in this line of work who seemed to have been utterly failed by the social contract—even if some of them found perks in their postmodern of life.

    I asked Bruder—who happens to be my former professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism—what she learned during the three years she reported Nomadland documenting the lives of these so-called workampers, and what it all means for the future of work in America. What she said made me fear for a generation that not only is unlikely to enjoy pensions but also has the additional burden of crippling student loan debt.

    Here's what we talked about.

    VICE: I was tasked with buying a shower curtain today on Amazon, but after reading your book, the thought makes me a bit queasy. For the uninitiated, can you describe the process that's set in motion when an order is placed on the site, and the physical labor involved in completing it?

    Jessica Bruder: They've got these warehouses, which they call "fulfillment centers," which to me sounds like Orwellian jargon, all over the country. And when you place an order, it goes through to whichever one is near you and has it. And these warehouses are essentially just huge input/output machines. When I see one when I'm driving past on the highway, they remind me of these giant pigs laying on their sides, with the trucks kind of suckling at them. It's really kind of creepy. So you've got inbound and outbound, all the merchandise comes in on side of the house, and it all goes out on the other side. Essentially, the humans are inside, kind of doing the digestion work. They're unboxing it, getting it on the shelves, and when you want that shower curtain, somebody is going to have to find it.

    So what does that entail for the people who work at Amazon, many of whom are seniors?

    The weird thing about how Amazon does all of this is that they are using robots to ferry the shelves around. So I'm a warehouse grunt, I'm standing at a station. I am what's called "a picker." I would be holding a handheld scanner gun, like a bar-code reader, and that bar-code reader has a screen on the front, and it would tell me that the next thing I'm gonna pick is this shower curtain for you. And then if i'm in a warehouse with robots, the robots bring me the shelves, and I get up on a ladder, and I shove my hands into the shelves. Any kind of shelf could have just about anything in it. So it could have a dildo, three fishhooks, which you really don't want to stab your fingers on—I've heard stories of that—two guitar picks, a children's book, and your curtain. And then basically I would take it out, take it to where it would get boxed, and then it would go over to the outbound side, where it would go in the mail and go to you.

    Amazon markets this kind of work to old people as a positive thing, using language about freedom and flexibility. But why even worry about optics when they're dealing with people who are kind of desperate?

    There is so much corrosive shame in our country about not having made it financially. If you walked into the casino and you lost, you're not unlucky, you're a bad person—so people are told by the culture. They're told that they're lazy, they're told that they're stupid, they're told that they're good for nothing. And you know, shame is an incredibly powerful tool for keeping people down.

    So what I see out there is a lot of people don't want to say to other people, "Yeah, I'm going to work at Amazon this winter because I'm broke, and I need money." It's a lot easier to say, "I'm going to stay active, I'm going to make friends, I'm going for some camaraderie, and, yeah, maybe I've gotta take a lot of ibuprofen, but that's really a weight loss program, the 15 miles a day of walking I have to do." So in a weird way, I don't blame the people, but it's really creepy. I kind of feel like, to make jobs like this sound like summer camp is just really exploitative, and it's misleading, but it's also capitalizing on the sort of shame people feel and the kind of how they need to spin what's really going on to get out of bed in the morning. I have an Amazon Camperforce newsletter, and the headline reminds me of My Little Ponies. It's "CamperForce: The Value of Friendship."

    There's one person in the book who alluded to the fact that that lifestyle kind of gave them—it was uncharacteristically empowering to old women, which isn't a group of people that get to have adventures later in life. Is there any positive aspect to this?

    Yeah, no absolutely. It's very complicated, and one of my challenges as a journalist is there are people who read the book, and it's all about adventures, and there are people who read the book and think it's all about the Grapes of Wrath. And the reality is more complicated. The communities that these people have created on the road, I think, sometimes bolster them better than the communities that they had at home.

    Did it seem like there was any hope for workampers or Amazon employees unionizing—or is management in pretty strong shape there?

    I heard from people I've been following for like four years now that a couple weeks before I got there there had been union organizers in the parking lot, and every morning during what they call Stand Up—which is kind of an announcements meeting with stretches—the managers were warning the employees not to talk the union organizers. And from what I understand, they were using scare tactics, basically, saying, "Look, once you give your name to one of those union organizers, they'll track you for life, you can't get off that list," kind of making it sound like the unions were some Orwellian nightmare. But organizing workampers would be really hard. These people are not in the same place long enough to coalesce and fight. They're there long enough to organize a potluck, but not really to organize an actual group that would better their employment situation. [Editor's note: Amazon declined to comment for Bruder's book.]

    What do you think the bigger threat is to our society: the automation of jobs or storefronts closing?

    We've been hearing the argument over and over again that the robots are going to take over and that automation is bad, and we're all screwed, but I think automation debate has actually become a proxy for distribution. I have, like, hundreds of newspaper clips of these incredibly off predictions from the 1950s that I'm fascinated with because it's basically people just saying, "Oh my God, the robots are going to do everything and what will we do, because people will be so bored! There will be a crisis of ennui! How will people find purpose?" It wasn't, "How will people eat?"

    The one thing they were missing was income inequality—that was what they did not factor in. They couldn't imagine things would get as polarized as they've become. So right now, I don't think automation is the problem. I think what we do in terms of income distribution, as automation continues to evolve and concentrates wealth among those who own the technology and how we handle that—I think that will probably be the bigger issue. Manufacturing has gotten romanticized so much just because those jobs were well paying, and now in short supply, but you know, nobody wants to work at a furnace in a steel plant. We can romanticize those jobs, but if you had a better option, something that's a little gentler on the body, people might choose the latter.

    (continua)

  8. #8
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    Some people have suggested that the new blue-collar jobs are in computer programming, which I don't really buy, since it takes a particular kind of person to do that. So what do you replace this unskilled labor with that's easier on the body?

    Did I tell you what's happening in Japan with exoskeletons? This is fucking crazy.

    Oh?

    The population is aging in Japan, and there are some employers whose workers have heavy lifting jobs—and they've started giving them these exoskeletons so that they can lift heavier loads.

    Jesus.

    In a weird a way, I kind of think this hybridization is what we're going to see in the immediate future. Some people look at it as positive, like, "Oh, it makes things easier on your body," and maybe I'm a bit more cyclical because I think, Oh, wow, you can squeeze even more exertion out of this human piece of meat.

    Right. Maybe instead of working to get Amazon workampers exoskeletons, maybe we should be working toward pensions so our elderly can die with dignity.

    There are cool uses for exoskeletons, like for people who are injured, and for helping people walk again—like, I'm not anti exoskeleton. But as a way to wring every last bit of energy and productivity out of human meat, that's not pretty to me.

    There's actually a more cynical progressive take to all this, which is that tech companies are starting to realize perhaps that if 90 percent of your consumer base is broke, you're not going to have people to sell shit to. I don't think that universal basic income without something that allows for social mobility is a solution. If it creates a subsistence level where people are alive and sheltered and whatever, but there's still no way to better their lot, then that's not good enough.



    Linda May, the main character in Bruder's book, lives inside what she calls the "Squeeze Inn."

    The other thing I kept noticing in the book that a lot of your characters who work for Amazon might characterize it as an evil company, but they also use it constantly. One woman even self-published her memoir on there!

    Yeah, they're exhausted, and they want speedy delivery, and it's the cheapest out there. I mean, Amazon is the perfectly evolved predator for the ecosystem we've created. For the most part, they're staying within the law, unless we revive antitrust, which would be fantastic.

    Yeah, especially with Amazon buying Whole Foods and getting into the brick-and-mortar game—how is that not a clear-cut case?

    The problem is that the law is so dated, and there is so little willpower to actually enforce it. But monopoly capitalism is really bad for democracy. You know, say what you will about capitalism itself, the whole point of antitrust legislation is that when companies reach a certain size, they can't be competed with any more, and they also, you know, they may become more powerful than the government.

    I mean consider the fact that they're an e-tailer, but every outlet that has to sell through them. Amazon takes all the data, cuts the merchants, and actually makes cheaper versions of what they're making. Amazon sells a lot of cloud space, and their clients include CIA and NASA. I mean, it's pretty insidious, they're everywhere.

    But the people you've written about can't escape it. They might think that a uniquely massive retail giant is not good for the world at large, but they're stuck because most people can't afford to get a shower curtain anywhere else.

    I don't rail on people about—like I'm not militant about people using it. I've used it from time to time, though I'm currently on a fast from using Amazon. But it's like, I kinda feel like sometimes that if people are just more conscious about how they're shopping and what they're doing in general, it's better than if they're trying to be perfect consumers. Sometimes you can spend the extra five bucks, and sometimes you can't. But I'd be a jerk if I blamed the characters in the book for using Amazon. It saves them money, it gets there fast, and they have challenging lives. So you know, bless 'em.

    https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5...ian-warehouses

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