Even Americans Who Hate Amazon Can’t Seem to Live Without It
It's Designed to Be Addictive
As she wakes in the morning, Ella asks Alexa to brew her coffee, check the weather, and order groceries from Whole Foods to be delivered to her apartment that evening. Ella is 26 years old and has hardly known a world without Amazon. She bought all her college textbooks used from the website, then sold them back. Although she’s had an Amazon Prime subscription since she was 18 years old, she still feels an endorphin surge when she comes home to find a package on her doorstep sealed with Amazon-branded packing tape.
After breakfast, Ella takes the subway to her office. For her work, she searches for Bluetooth keyboards; no surprise, Amazon has the best selection. She clicks twice and knows they’ll be at her desk the next or maybe even the same day if she really needs them fast. She backs up important company files on the cloud built by Amazon Web Services, researches small-business loans offered by Amazon Lending, then gathers her team to discuss her start-up’s next major milestone: launching a new product on the Amazon site. That evening, on her way home, she stops at a cashier-less Amazon Go store to pick up a snack, and when she leaves, sensors and cameras automatically charge her Amazon account for what she carries out. She returns home, where she asks Alexa to read her a recipe for dinner. After eating, she relaxes by asking Alexa to play the Amazon Prime Video hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on her TV, and then falls to sleep reading her Kindle.
Ella is a fictional character, but the world she lives in is very real. We all know that many others like her exist in the Amazon ecosystem—Amazon Prime members in America pay $119 a year for the privilege of being fully enmeshed in it. Millions of Amazon’s products can be shipped to them in 17 countries in two days or less for free. Not all Amazon shoppers, however, are Prime members. Around the globe, an estimated 200 million additional online shoppers have, whether they realize it or not, signed on for Bezos’s operating system for life. And Bezos has only started to penetrate world markets. The company is extending its tentacles through Europe, India, Africa, South America, and Japan. Only in China, with its formidable homegrown digital giants Alibaba and Tencent, has Amazon been thwarted.
To the person on the street, Amazon is a business that delivers lots of stuff in little brown boxes. Walk down an avenue on any given afternoon in LA, London, or Mumbai and you’ll see Amazon’s smile boxes piled up in lobbies or dropped at doorsteps. A former Amazon executive who served for a decade in high-profile positions at the company told me that what Amazon is really doing is creating a new operating system that will be broader and more pervasive than Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. “Everything we did at Amazon,” he said, “was about becoming a tightly woven part of the fabric of [people’s] lives. We did that on Amazon.com and now here comes the Amazon Echo with Alexa, who tells us the weather, plays music for us, controls the lights and cooling in our houses and, yes, helps us buy things on Amazon.com. We’re getting to the point where there is going to be a massive integration. Amazon is becoming an operating system for your life.”
It’s hard to fathom just how popular and addictive and all-encompassing Amazon has become. During the 2017 holiday season, three-quarters of Americans who shop online said they would make most of their purchases on Amazon. The next closest destination was Walmart.com, with 8 percent saying they’d do most of their shopping there. US Post Office trucks in suburban areas made extra runs to deliver the stream of Amazon packages. In some areas, mailmen started their routes at 4:00 am to keep up with the volume. On New York’s Fire Island, the local ferry each morning was taking so long to unload Amazon deliveries that some ferry riders had to take an earlier boat to avoid missing their commuter train to New York City.
In an age where people are losing trust in our institutions, Amazon has earned deep respect. In 2018, the Baker Center at Georgetown University asked Americans which institutions they believed in the most. Democrats picked Amazon above all others—quite surprising, given the mounting attacks from the Left targeting the company’s tough warehouse working conditions and its ability to squeeze large tax breaks from local governments and the fact that it paid little or no federal income tax in 2017 and 2018. The Republicans polled picked Amazon third after—no shocker—the military and the local police. Whether Democrat or Republican, those surveyed respected Amazon more than the FBI, universities, Congress, the press, the courts, and religion. That perhaps helps explain that while 51 percent of American households attend church, 52 percent have Amazon Prime memberships.
The reverence for Amazon runs particularly deep among the millennials and Gen Zers. The Max Borges Agency polled 1,108 people from the ages of 18 to 34 who’d bought tech products on Amazon in the last year. An astounding 44 percent said they’d rather give up sex than quit Amazon for a year, and 77 percent would choose Amazon over alcohol for a year. This, however, might reveal as much about the lifestyles and sex drives of millennials and Gen Zers as about Amazon’s allure.
That kind of stellar reputation among consumers translates into dollar signs. A ranking of the world’s most valuable brands, released in mid-2019 by the data firm Kantar, a division of the advertising giant WPP, put Amazon for the first time at the top of the list. Its brand, Kantar estimates, is worth $315 billion—up by an impressive $108 billion from the previous year. Amazon beat out Apple and Google for the top spot. The company outpaced both Alibaba and Tencent by more than a two-to-one margin.
Amazon has become so addictive that it’s now taking a significant share of Americans’ income. The company siphons off 2.1 percent of all household spending—or some $1,320 for a U.S. family that earns $63,000 a year. The main reason consumers open their wallets for Amazon is that it saves shoppers the time, hassle, and expense of driving or taking public transport to a store to purchase mundane items such as diapers or batteries. A case in point: when Charlotte Mayerson, a retired book editor living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, needed new batteries for her old landline phone, she hopped a bus to the nearest Best Buy for a replacement. The helpful clerk said: “Best Buy does not carry that battery, but I’d be happy to help you out.” He walked to his computer screen and ordered the woman her replacement batteries—on Amazon.
Even some shoppers who despise Amazon can’t live without it. Nona Willis Aronowitz, in an op-ed for the New York Times, said that on principle she hated Amazon because of the reports she’d read about the way it treated its warehouse workers. Yet, after her 85-year-old father, who’d been a labor activist at one point in his career, had suffered a debilitating stroke, Aronowitz came to depend on Amazon for making sure her house-ridden dad had everything he needed—from physical therapy balls to cheap tubs of protein powder. Aronowitz saw using Amazon as a “deal with the devil,” yet wrote of her father: “He can’t shop on his own, and his caretaker can’t spend her life going to specialty pharmacies and medical supply stores. So Amazon Prime has been his lifeline.”
No one has any hard statistics on the topic, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that some shoppers develop a psychological addiction to Amazon. At one point, a 40-year-old man in Saco, Maine, had his account suspended for returning too many smartphones—Amazon’s algorithms secretly decide who is worthy and who is not. The man spent months trying to get himself back in good standing. After much pleading to an Amazon customer service employee, his account was finally restored. As he told the Wall Street Journal: “It was dizzying and disorienting. You don’t realize how intertwined a company is with your daily routine, until it’s shut off.”
For some time now, scientists have known that using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can be addictive. Every time someone’s phone pings with a notification announcing the latest number of likes or an enthusiastic comment, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that among other things can trigger a sense of pleasure. Users get used to these little highs and compulsively check the site to see if someone has commented on their latest post. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook who resigned from the social media company in 2005, once explained that to hook its users, the company exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, we . . . give you a little dopamine hit.”
Both adults and children are susceptible to Internet addiction although the phenomenon is particularly evident in children who become glued to their screens at a time when they should be developing social and reading skills. It has reached the point where some Silicon Valley titans won’t let their kids use phones or at least strictly reduce their access to these devices. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company—hardly a Luddite—expounded upon children and screen use in a New York Times interview: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine. Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve. We thought we could control it, and this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain.”
While social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter can cause social and psychological problems, Amazon is responsible for aggravating an equally serious phenomenon: shopping addiction. So powerful is its allure that some people get caught in a kind of compulsion feedback loop with dire financial consequences. The 1-Click buy button is the equivalent of getting a ping of affirmation on Facebook or Instagram. But instead of a “like” from a friend, a person with a single click knows they’ll get a reward—a package arriving at their home in a day or two with some item they desire—the equivalent of receiving holiday or birthday gifts throughout the year. So, they get a double hit of dopamine—one when they click and the other when the doorbell rings with a delivery.
Some have become financial victims of Amazon’s compulsion feedback loop. April Benson is a New York City psychologist who specializes in shopping addiction. In the course of her research she discovered some serious cases of addicted online shoppers, including a middle-aged woman named Constance from Long Island who recently filed for bankruptcy after accumulating $150,000 in debt. As Constance told Benson: “I don’t know what it’s like to be a crack head, but shopping is my crack. . . . I work 7 days a week to support my habit. . . . Something’s got to give.”
Shopaholics are not new, but the Internet has made it easier to become one because of the convenience of shopping online. The Max Borges Agency poll of millennial and Gen Z shoppers found that 47 percent have shopped online while using the bathroom, 57 percent while working, 23 percent while sitting in traffic, and 19 percent while drunk (although one might have thought that the number of besotted shoppers would be higher). One high school teacher in the Northeast said she’d occasionally sit in bed drunk, buy stuff on Amazon, and not remember the next morning what she ordered.
The addictive ease of shopping by the press of a button or with an Alexa voice command means that some shoppers might simply end up buying more junk than they need. The other day I found myself ordering on Amazon a stainless-steel coffee canister that had a carbon dioxide vent to keep the grounds fresh. Who even knew that CO2 was a threat to coffee, and why did I care? I bought it anyway. The more we know we can buy, the more we buy. Online shopping is also a great way to procrastinate at work. Tired of designing that spreadsheet or writing that memo? Somehow your brain reminds you that you really do need a new pair of flip-flops for your upcoming weekend excursion to the beach, and off one’s fingers go to Amazon.
Excerpted from Bezonomics: How Amazon Is Changing Our Lives and What the World’s Best Companies Are Learning From It by Brian Dumaine. Copyright © 2020 by Brian Dumaine. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.