Is Amazon the New Walmart?

I remember how excited our town was when we found out that we were going to be getting a Walmart. Big selection, cheap prices: good times were coming. And they came.

Walmart drove out the smaller stores, who couldn’t compete with price and selection, even if they could on quality. But what about with books and bookstores? Here’s what seems to have happened:

1. Small bookstores predominated
2. Borders and Barnes & Noble (big-box bookstores) drove out the small ones
3. Amazon drives out big-box stores

Amazon accomplishes this by underselling the big-box stores, having lower overhead (no big brick-and-mortar stores with all the expenses associated with them), and having a bigger selection (since it doesn’t have to keep all its selection in an actual store for someone to walk into).

I’ve got something of a love-hate relationship with Amazon. Their services enabled me to self-publish my book. But they made it very clear that I was not to offer the book for sale at a cheaper price anywhere else. Amazon was to have the lowest price or at least an equally low price.

This seems like the Walmart way as well: you better give Walmart the lowest price for your product because otherwise they won’t sell it. “Hey, it’s a free country–sell your product elsewhere.” But the fact is of course that not being able to sell through Walmart (or, through Amazon nowadays) means you lose 90% of your business.

I still like going into bookstores. Even big-box ones. But the Borders are now closed and B&N is all that’s left. How soon can it hold out? And once it’s gone, what then?

My hope is that the rise of the mega-giant Amazon actually allows a space to be carved out for a smaller store again. Maybe something like a coffee shop/bookstore that emphasizes the local aspect: hosts local authors and features their books, writing classes, reading groups, book clubs, and so on. Sure, bring in your Kindle and get a coffee, but the advantage would be that this is a destination where people actually want to go, that would foster some local community. You don’t go there expecting to find the latest Harry Potter or Grisham book (or whoever is popular nowadays–I don’t keep up). You go there to relax, read a book, and if you like connect with other people in your area.

Amazon’s endgame victory would be the complete domination of the marketplace. And does anyone really want that? You order everything online; it gets shipped directly to you home; you never leave to go flip through some books at the local store, chat with some people, etc. And you even buy most of the books electronically to your Kindle, downloaded invisibly over the internet. Completely automated isolation and disconnection from real life encounters.

Catholic bookstores, being a niche, are still largely of the mom-and-pop variety, thousands across the country owned locally by a devout Catholic family. And since many Catholics are still old-school, they go to these stores rather than order online. But how long will that last? Won’t Amazon eventually catch up with them and as their clientele gets older, more will just go online and buy that (Catholic) book or first communion gift?

One Catholic bookstore wanted to carry my book, but when they realized that the only way they could get it (even wholesale) was through Amazon, they demurred. And I didn’t blame them. Amazon must look like their arch-enemy.

So Amazon does what Walmart once did: offer the consumer the lowest price. But they do so by underselling everyone or blocking that product from being sold through them. While we used to cheer that we can buy junk from China at Walmart for pennies on the dollar–and now we do the same thing but through Amazon–the real cost of these products and this business model remain hidden, including the increased isolation of people from one another in the community.

Thus, Amazon seems the ideal capitalist achievement, and in being so, the antithesis of a local economy and distributism.



Devin is the author of If Protestantism Is True and he blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard.

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  • snipercatcher

    A Catholic publisher told me my book sounded depressing. But one good thing is Amazon DOES allow small third-party booksellers. And I can’t remember having a bad experience with any of them. Still, I a disappointed about the nearest B and N closing.

  • Joe DeVet

    Referring to the closing paragraph–so what if Amazon is the antithesis of a local economy.  Who is your neighbor?  I propose this biblical question is not correctly answered by “those who live in my village” or “within a 50-mile radius.”  I believe that all people in the world are my neighbor in a very real way, in particular in terms of economic opportunity. 

    “Amazon is the antithesis of distributism.”  Distributism is imaginary, unjust, immoral in certain ways, and conducive to mass poverty.  If something is the antithesis, it stands a good chance of being something real, something good, something which contributes to the common welfare.

  • Lc1967

    I dread buying anything lately.  I want people to be able to make an honest living and I want to spend  as little as possible. Amazon has been great for me because I can get things I can’t find anywhere in my area, like a really sturdy dryer vent or a power supply for my husband’s laptop. I’m an introvert, so I don’t like to chit chat with store owners and I don’t like to go to a lot of different stores to get my groceries and other needs.  But I feel bad about mom and pop stores having to close.

  • Editor

    Thanks for your comment, Joe. I do have to raise an objection to your position regarding the question “who is my neighbor,” though. Yes, everyone is our neighbor, but surely we have a greater responsibility to the neighbors right next to us? For instance, I have a duty to provide for my kids more than for people in a foreign country. By the way, you might enjoy the new Pat Buchanan article in our columnist section, it has to do with this topic. Have a good day!

  • J.

    Do you remember that it took Amazon 7 years before they made a profit? Amazon’s investors lost money year after year. Now that they are successful, what should they do . . . quit?  It is likely someone with a “better mousetrap” will come along. After all Walmart has had to deal with competition from Target and Dollar Tree and it has cost them. Let’s rejoice in the freedom we have in this country to take a risk, start a business, and try to become successful. 

  • markeyjoe

    Walmart is so successful in part because many of their employees are part-timers with litttle or no benefits. In Michigan, if the monthly salary is below a certain amount, then the employer does not have to pay unemployment insurance. of course then when the empoyee finds herself unemployed there is no income whatsoever. Now this has nothing to do with social justice, it is just coincidence right? ergo why i refuse to shop walmart regardless of the money i may save

  • Desertwatch333

    True…I resisted the Kindle for so long then received it as a gift…I read a lot and I love books, paper books, the feel of them, the sense of intimacy – hard to explain. However, once I started downloading books instantly (many of them free) I was hooked. But I’ll still go to Barnes & Noble and browse, then sit and have a cup of coffee, meet friends there…I travel and carrying books on Kindle saves me lugging heavy backpacks of books but reading books on Kindle is a different experience.  Good but not as pleasurable, again, hard to explain. I do like how the Kindle saves what I underline in a separate space so when I’m writing an article, I can find my ‘quotes’ without going through many books.  There is a ‘Catholic’ Kindle list now too…I hope that doesn’t put ‘mom and pop’ Catholic book stores out of business…

  • liturgylover

    I am amazed at how much justification is going on in the comments to this article.  The article is right on and shame on ANYONE who does what these folks are doing.  The local mom and pop stores do not exist to be a showroom for samples so that you can see and read the books at no cost to you and then, maybe, go and download them to your Kindle or buy the paper book from Amazon.  Being a “user” of your local small business by reading there (it is not a library!) or only chatting or coffee-drinking (assuming you are not ruining the merchandise!) guarantees that they will not be there for long.  Step up and support them bu BUYING there.  Most will ship to you as well.  Seek out the small stores, even if they are in a neighboring community and ask them to accomodate you.  Most will do so, very gratefully!

  • Marc

    I think we should all buy great Catholic spiritual books through Amazon, and use the money we saved to go to (local) coffee shops and share our thoughts concerning our recent purchases.  That’s more fun than browsing through the books at the local book store and wishing we could afford to purchase them. Yay Amazon!

  • To be fair, small businesses can sell their products on Amazon through the Marketplace. Walmart never allowed something like this. Amazon is the only barrier keeping Walmart from completely annihilating everything in its path.