Outside the Box: Dear Amazon: We love you, but you’ve got a problem


Dear Amazon,

We need to talk. We have a problem. Over the past quarter-century, you’ve become part of the American family. For me and millions of others, you made online shopping easy, efficient, and secure. Amid so much change, you’ve brought the world to people who are remote, homebound, or otherwise constrained by the pandemic. You’re dependable—and even as news breaks about employee abuse, safety issues, and union busting, we trust you.

We trust Amazon

 for speed, volume, and convenience. You offer fast delivery of a vast array of products, contextualized with enough information to help us feel confident. From the instant gratification of one-click shopping to set-it-and-forget-it recurring shipments, from extensive product category research to efficient wedding and baby shower registries—it’s all there.

It’s a credit to your designers, writers, and developers, really. Amazon, you make it so damn easy.

A force for good?

But here’s the problem: fast and easy aren’t enough anymore. We also expect companies to do business in a way that aligns with our values. Per the March 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 86% of surveyed consumers expect CEOs to speak out about societal challenges. We expect business to be a force for good. As one of the world’s largest businesses by every metric—market capitalization, brand valuation, employees, subscribers, live-streaming users, cloud computer services—Amazon, you’re a force. But are you a force for good?

Margot Bloomstein

Photo by Sharona Jacobs

You gaslight employees and deny reports they’re peeing in bottles to maintain productivity quotas—and sneer at congressional representatives who question the situation, thereby mocking the challenges of hourly workers and government oversight. You intimidate people who attempt to unionize and work with local authorities to recalibrate traffic lights to thwart union officials that try to engage employees as they leave warehouses. You don’t pay workers a living wage, pushing many full-time workers to rely on government benefits such as SNAP to support their families. You squeeze out competitors, whether they’re small bookstores or small businesses that make products you decide to knock off. And now you’re facing a class-action lawsuit for price-fixing brought by indie bookstores. Abuse, union busting, and cutthroat capitalism isn’t just a bad look. It’s bad business.

I’m not alone when I hold my nose and engage with Amazon begrudgingly. You’re not the retailer of choice, but the retailer of convenience. No one wants to choose between their values and actions—and as many businesses embrace the responsibility of building a stronger democracy, we don’t have to. The pandemic has prompted many organizations to engage with employees and customers in more humane ways that foster community, increase retention, and build trust. 

Amazon, that could be you. You’re at an inflection point to earn our trust for something beyond speed and selection.

Wish list: Humility and transparency

Amazon, if you’re ready to build loyalty for something more, you’ll need to deliver something more: vulnerability. Vulnerability isn’t weakness, but the strength of acknowledging your problems grounded in the confidence that you can overcome them. Vulnerability, humility, and transparency draw even the harshest critics closer—and amid lawsuits and troll-worthy tweeting, you could use that right now.

How do you build trust through vulnerability? Acknowledge your problems. When employees draw visibility to their working conditions, don’t deny the issues, but dig in to learn more. Respect the interest of employees and a concerned public by sharing what you’re doing to address the situation. Stay away from platitudes and bravado; you’re better than that and all too often have the data to prove it. Offer accountability and transparency. Tell us what you’re doing to improve and why those problems won’t ever happen again.

Raise standards and expectations to pay your workers a living wage. Per the Living Wage Calculator, a couple working in your Bessemer, Ala., warehouse would need to work full-time at $19.22 an hour to support a family of four; $15 won’t cut it without the support of safety-net programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. By improving conditions for your employees, you’ll strengthen the communities where they live and you do business, and set an example for other companies.

Engage your competition fairly. Stop price fixing, undercutting small businesses, and knocking off the products developed by businesses you help connect with the world. You’re doing well enough to let others flourish—and again, that strengthens the communities where your customers and employees live. Not only is it good business, but it’s good citizenship that creates a stronger country. Amazon can do well and do good, building a stronger economy beyond the bottom line.

Regaining trust

Will these changes fix everything? No, of course not. The publishing industry will still be prey to your algorithm and small bookstores will still have to scramble to justify their prices and inventory to maintain a community that your convenience handily undercuts. But just because you can’t fix everything doesn’t mean you should ignore the problems you can address. You’ve screwed up, Amazon, but there are some things you can fix immediately.

You can choose to move forward with humility, respect for your audience, and confidence cultivated through vulnerability. And here’s the thing: most of your customers want you to. We want to know our dollars are fueling a force for good, not deceit and destruction at every turn.

Ignoring, denying, and deceiving your way around issues with employee treatment, product development, and competition isn’t a path forward if you want to improve relations with employees or your customers and critics. But by publicly acknowledging your mistakes, detailing a path to addressing them, and offering transparent accountability to resolution, you’ll offer so many consumers what they’ve been missing: alignment between their actions and values.

Help them regain trust in their decisions to shop at Amazon and they’ll regain trust in Amazon itself.

Margot Bloomstein is the principal of Appropriate Inc. and the author of “Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap” (Page Two Books, March 2021).

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