If Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey were starring in TV comedy Black Books now rather than a decade ago, chain store Goliath Books would be the least of their worries. Instead, their nemesis would be Amazon, the cartoon baddie of the publishing world.
As if it couldn’t stick the knife further into the publishing industry, the retail giant – which this year overtook Wal-Mart to become the planet’s most valuable retailer – this week unveiled its first “physical” store, with, it was keen to point out, “real wooden doors”. The move goaded even usually civilised book merchant Waterstones to lose its temper and proclaim that it hoped the venture “falls flat on its face”. Ouch.
The books in Amazon’s store will, it says, be sold at the same price as those on its website, outstripping traditional booksellers such as Waterstones – if it later expands its new venture to the UK – and in the US, the likes of Barnes and Noble. The decision to move from online into real, tangible, bookstores is surprising. And an unlikely business decision, unless of course the sole motivation was just to rub salt in the already gaping wounds of its rivals; to stick one finger up at its competitors.
The book selling – and as a result, publishing – industry has been hard hit by Amazon’s low prices and the rise of its Kindle reader, who can buy low-price electronic versions of literary works.
But, the thing about Amazon is, no matter how much it does things which everyone hates, we keep giving them money. It is like an addiction. Or an abusive relationship.
It fails to pay a decent amount of corporation tax in the UK; workers at its warehouses tell horror stories of long shifts, impossible-to-meet targets and zero-hours contracts.
On a personal note, it last week took off its streaming service, Prime Video, denying me access to a box set which I was obsessively watching, with barely an apology. Yes, it e-mailed me a few days before to warn me this disaster would occur, but despite my best binge-watching efforts, I barely managed an extra half of a series before it became pay-for. Gutted. Yet, we keep going back.
Its latest set of results, published in October for the third-quarter, showed that net sales rose 23 per cent from the previous year, partly driven by its growing web services business, which is now actually bigger than its retail operation.
In its latest statement, Amazon also forecast a “record” holiday season, expecting net sales between $33.5 billion (£21.5bn) and $36.75bn. That’s quite a lot of money.
What riles me most about Amazon, something which has been niggling me for some time, is that it charges customers a higher price than some other retailers, seemingly in exchange for “free” shipping – which they are already paying for through an annual subscription. Until now, I have ignored it, pretending I hadn’t noticed; content that the convenience of free next-day delivery through my Amazon Prime membership outweighed the fact that if I was just a tiny bit more organised, I could order things for minimal shipping costs from elsewhere cheaper.
My suspicion became a reality when money-saving site Flubit.com put the figures in front of me in black and white.
Data from the past three months analysed by Flubit showed that in the video games category alone, independent online merchants charged 11 per cent less than Amazon for the same products. Beauty products from alternative stores were 10.5 per cent cheaper, while even books, surprisingly, were 10 per cent less elsewhere.
This occurs, Flubit claims, because merchants are charged high prices to sell on Amazon, a charge which they need to pass down to the consumer. Take Amazon out of the equation and they can price more competitively.
Flubit found that perfume Beyoncé Pulse Eau de Parfum, costing £11.88 on Amazon, was available for nearly 15 per cent less on average at £10.15 from other retailers. Popular video game Call of Duty Black Ops III for PS4 sells for just £35.74 through independent retailers, Flubit claims, 15 per cent less than the Amazon price of £42.
Amazon’s trick is that it manages to subtly pull you in. You become an Amazonian. As a long-time former member of DVD lending library LoveFilm, I suddenly found one day 18 months or so ago, that I was now a member of Amazon Prime Video after the firm was taken over by the retail giant.
I could, Amazon said, sneering slightly, keep paying a monthly membership like I used to when it was (disapproving sniff) still called LoveFilm. Or, it said, brightly, I could pay only a tiny amount more a year and enjoy all of the benefits full Amazon Prime could bring me.
Free next day delivery; unlimited photo storage; Amazon Music; the Kindle Owners’s Lending Library, which proffers a miserable selection of books for me to download for free. Mainly things I don’t want or need.
But, I realised, if, for example, I moved my photos over from my current cloud, I would essentially be getting my storage free. Hmm. After all, I already pay £79 a year for Prime.
But once I’ve done that, their evil addiction robots cleverly realised, they’ve sucked me in. I am theirs for good. Instead of moving all of my thousands of photos again, I am bound to just keep paying my Prime membership again next year, for an easy life. Forget it if I want to switch to Netflix. Prime has got me locked in – as has Amazon.
My Prime subscription is up for renewal early next year. I’ll try to be strong and extricate myself if I can. Send help and good wishes.