The story of Amazon might make a good movie.
Brad Stone’s The Everything Store is a very accessible and entertaining take on a company that has enriched the lives of millions of people around the world. It’s certainly enriched mine – there is no counting the number of things, both useful and of dubious practical value, that I’ve ordered off its shelves. They pride themselves on their level of engagement with their customers – a quality to which I can happily attest. What Stone tries to do in his book is to provide a narrative of how that company came to be, powered very much by the firebrand personality and almost superhuman drive of its founder, Jeff Bezos. It also asks if Amazon’s endless and zealous crusade to provide its customers with a top-notch experience comes with its own, less savory costs.
The book is split into three rough parts. The first tracks Amazon’s growth from a scrappy start-up as a book distributor to a giant conglomerate in the space of a decade. The second is a continuation of that story but focuses on Amazon’s quest to transform itself from a retailer to a full-fledged technology company, complete with cloud computing services, video streaming, as well as its push into hardware like e-books and tablets. The last deals with some of Amazon’s often adversarial dealings with its various suppliers and competitors, and considers the nature of the Amazon beast. Is Amazon a a missionary company, always innovating and pushing the envelope of service quality, or is it a mercenary company that ruthlessly chases growth and expansion at all costs, crushing competitors in its wake?
The first part is what I think might make a good biopic. Stone spins a tale in the “Great Men of History” mode – a narrative that starts and ends with Jeff Bezos as the architect of Amazon’s success. It even goes so far as to attribute Bezos’ unique qualities to his genealogy and upbringing. It lingers on Bezos’ often adversarial managing style and his frequent “nutters” – hyperbolic fits of rage where he spouts abusive invective to his lieutenants when his lofty expectations aren’t met. Stone attributes Amazon’s unlikely success to Bezos’ determination to make things work in the face of obstacles that would leave most people in despair. To Stone, Amazon’s internal culture is the soul of Bezos – infused with a sense of frugality, customer-centrism, hard work, and openness to conflict and disagreement that generates innovation and momentum, at the expense of work-life balance and a cordial, comfortable working culture.
Of course, the problem with this, as it is with many other biographical works, is the tendency to fall into a pattern of pattern-matching and theorizing, cobbling together a compelling-sounding narrative of Amazon’s rise out of disparate pieces of research and anecdotal accounts. This book is not immune to this form of narrative fallacy, and might in fact be guilty of it to an uncomfortable extent. There is no way to know how much of the book is “true”, but what is certain is that it is no stranger to such accusations that it is spinning a one-sided narrative: MacKenzie Bezos, wife of Jeff Bezos, famously posted a one-star review of the book on Amazon accusing Stone of doing so. Who’s to know who’s right in this scenario? The ostensibly objective outsider with his limited perspective, or the insider with the potentially wider perspective but equipped with personal bias? All the reader can really do in this scenario is to read this account with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Stone does better when he considers the bigger picture, posing the interesting question about whether Amazon is a mercenary or missionary company. As a company, Amazon acts on the principle that short-term gains in stock price are far less important than building up a brand and shoring up customer loyalty in the long run, in order to build market share. Amazon’s mission statement is simple and clear – be the one-stop storefront for all your needs, whether it be consumer goods or media. Amazon’s oft-stated deference to the customer manifests itself in its drive to have the lowest prices and the best service – in that sense, it is a missionary, spreading the creed that customer satisfaction is what companies should care about. But in doing so, it can be outright predatory when dealing with its upstream suppliers and competitors – threatening them to offer lower wholesale prices or leveraging their huge size to engage in price war brinkmanship to drive potential competitors out of business. To some, Amazon is the savior, acting as the watchdog to ensure that customers always get the best deals. To others, Amazon is a bully, driving small business owners to the ground, as well as online retail start-ups that dare to compete, and ill-treating their employees in the name of passing on the cost savings to customers. Do we characterize Amazon as a kind of corporate Robin Hood, arm-twisting corporations to give customers better prices? Or is Amazon a bully, engaging in unsportsmanlike behavior to inveigle unnecessary concessions out of its fellow companies? Is it the bitter medicine of innovation that Amazon peddles, or a malaise that will lead to crushed dreams and broken livelihoods? And what does this mean for the Amazon customer, in terms of shaping her patronage decisions, when Amazon’s cost-saving mechanisms sometimes means that their low-level employees in customer service and fulfillment are treated poorly and let go often? Stone’s book is a good general primer that introduces and expounds at some length on those issues, and should be read by anyone who has an interest in that aspect of Amazon’s business.
For what it’s worth, Amazon is a fixture in modern life, and I do believe it is the future of retail. However, it does strike home that the rise of e-books and online bookstores have driven many brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business. Is that a good think for reader’s culture in general? I think that browsing the aisles of a cosy bookstore is in itself an experience to be treasured. The clinical convenience of one-clicking an ebook purchase may have its advantages, but nothing beats an afternoon of book browsing in a place where a human touch has been put into careful curation and presentation of its selection. Fittingly, perhaps, my copy of The Everything Store is in print and purchased from a physical bookstore.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 Wüsthof knives