The Constant Consumer
Every day, the imperative to perceive oneself as a customer grows across a range of experiences and institutions: in the shopping centers and business improvement districts that have replaced public squares and parks; in the schools and hospitals, where offerings are tailored not to general social welfare but to individual consumer choice and what each can afford; and in the gym, where exercise, nutrition, and other forms of wellness have been redefined as personal lifestyle choices.
If the customer is always right, then you’re never wrong when you’re consuming. No contemporary company has offered that Faustian bargain more broadly and aggressively than Amazon. In a previous era, being at home meant you probably weren’t shopping. The mall was, as Ian Bogost noted in an essay for the Atlantic, where “consumerism roared and swelled but, inevitably, remained contained.” Freeing consumerism from that containment was one of the internet’s earliest applications, streamlining the process of shopping at home, and later, on phones.
Recent technologies have enabled the role of customer to be fused with the newer role of user, who inhabits an entire system rather than a specific transaction
Recent technologies have enabled the role of customer to be fused with the newer role of user, who inhabits an entire system rather than a specific transaction.Exploring that transition, writer Kevin Slavin describes how the experience of app-based food delivery narrows one’s perspective: “For users, this is what it means to be at the center: to be unaware of anything outside it.” Those apps’ minimal interfaces, requiring little more than the push of a button to order food, conceal the labor and logistical sophistication that make it possible. Users don’t need to understand the messy complexity that supports their simplified solipsism. In Slavin’s example, that insight wouldn’t help them order more food, so the user experience excludes it.
Amazon similarly merges the customer and the user within its own optimized environments, letting these subjects exist at the center of an ever-expanding system. Imagine an avid Amazon customer’s typical day living with a near future iteration of the platform: He wakes up and speaks his first words of the morning to his Amazon Echo in the kitchen, asking Alexa to order toothpaste after noticing he was running low. Upon checking his email, he gives Alexa a few more instructions, adding social engagements and reminders to his calendar, checking the weather, and finally opening the garage door once he’s ready to leave for work. At the office throughout the day, idle shopping fills his distracted moments. He browses books, clothing, and even furniture, placing orders within seconds, many of which automatically appear in his shopping cart based on patterns from his activity history (he even knows that some of what he buys will be waiting at home tonight). During the evening commute another Alexa-enabled device in his car prompts him to send his sister a birthday card, an action he asks Alexa to do for him. He stops by Whole Foods to pick up groceries — as an Amazon Prime member, it’s always the most cost-effective option in his neighborhood. He arrives home to find a variety of Amazon packages stacked neatly on the living room coffee table, delivered throughout the day by part-time contractors who let themselves into the house via the smart lock on the front door. The soundtrack to his entire day is provided by Amazon Music, in which his Prime membership has automatically enrolled him for a small monthly fee. Few parts of this hypothetical day, which is already within the realm of possibility, remain untouched by Amazon’s user experience.
Amazon, as much as any single company, is transforming the environments in which we live and embedding itself within the fabric of daily existence. Beyond individual experience, those changes also manifest themselves in the physical environment. Many physical retail stores have been rendered obsolete as Amazon and other online retailers started undercutting them on price and offering a wider selection. (Bookstores experienced this first but it eventually spread to almost every form of retail.) Sidewalks and building lobbies have become staging areas for packages, with delivery vehicles exacerbating traffic and obstructing bike lanes as piles of brown Amazon boxes increasingly take up space. As Amazon and food delivery apps eliminate some of the most common reasons to leave one’s house one wonders what sort of neighborhood life will be sustainable in affluent urban areas....MUCH MORE
In light of Amazon’s all-encompassing ambitions, the strategy behind several of the company’s most important product initiatives — Alexa, Amazon Prime, physical retail stores (including Amazon Go and Whole Foods), and Amazon Key — becomes clearer. These products seek to redefine what being a customer means by immersing us more completely within the Amazon universe. Formerly, being a customer was a role one assumed upon physically entering a store or ordering something from a company. Amazon promises to create a newer type of environment, a hybrid of the digital and the physical, that lets us permanently inhabit that role: the world as Everything Store, which we’re always inside.
Amazon represents its efforts to erase the remaining bulwarks against consumerism as its “customer obsession.” Throughout Amazon’s existence, the company has claimed that traditional corporate priorities, from high-profile retail partnerships to short-term profitability to the company’s stock price, have always ranked below customer satisfaction. Early in the company’s history, CEO Jeff Bezos sometimes insisted on keeping one seat open at the conference room table during meetings “for the customer,” and he still scans customer feedback himself, escalating problems to relevant departments with emails that consist of a single question mark.
Bezos’s letter to Amazon’s shareholders on April 18, 2018, praised the company’s customers for being “divinely discontent,” unfailingly raising their expectations beyond whatever standard a company sets for them. In the letter, Bezos likens this force to nothing less than evolution — “We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied” — and goes on to describe the “customer empowerment phenomenon” that informs Amazon’s approach: Consumers’ access to product reviews, price comparisons, and shipping timelines has created a space where they and not retailers call the shots. To succeed in this landscape, Bezos suggests, companies must respond to their customers’ ever-increasing power by treating them like the linchpins that they are; whoever does this best will rightfully dominate its market.Part of being “right” was being offered choices to be right about
Amazon’s obsession with customers appears to have endeared them, again and again, to a public that should know better: Earlier this year, Amazon announced that Prime memberships had surpassed 100 million globally, with more new members joining in 2017 than in any previous year. The company’s second-quarter sales in 2018 grew 39 percent versus the previous year. Many have started welcoming Amazon’s physical presence into their homes, with Alexa-enabled devices ranking among the company’s best-selling items. “Customer obsession” is a happier narrative for this dominance than one of aggressive market capture, anti-competitive tactics, and ruthless labor exploitation. Like “support the troops,” or “what about the children,” caring about the customer seems like an impregnable position to take. It’s a more specific iteration of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”: How could a consumer-focused company be evil, when we are all consumers? What could be wrong with the company being focused on our needs?...
If interested see also the post immediately above:
Frank Pasquale—From Territorial to Functional Sovereignty: The Case of Amazon (AMZN