December 12, 2011

Amazon’s Price Check Saturday ends, angry backlash continues


Amazon‘s “Price Check Saturday” had already stirred up the world of outrage going into the weekend, as we reported in a one MobyLives story after another. Friday the American Booksellers Association joined the fray with a blistering letter from ABA head Oren Teicher, saying, in part:

Dear Jeff Bezos,

We’re not shocked, just disappointed.

Despite your company’s recent pledge to be a better corporate citizen and to obey the law and collect sales tax, you created a price-check app that allows shoppers to browse Main Street stores that do collect sales tax, scan a product, ask for expertise, and walk out empty-handed in order to buy on Amazon. We suppose we should be flattered that an online sales behemoth needs a Main Street retail showroom.

Forgive us if we’re not.

We could call your $5 bounty to app-users a cheesy marketing move and leave it at that. In fact, it is the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries.

Also late Thursday Joshua Bodwell, head of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance announced a petition drive to let Amazon know what people think of their promotion, asking “How’s that for holiday cheer? Amazon is essentially bribing customers in order to making them human data collection vehicles: All of the item scans submitted will enable Amazon to better undercut bookstores. Are you willing to work for Amazon this holiday season?” Bodwell called upon people not to let “a dinky little Internet retailer that treats books like any old widget control something as vast and rich as the destiny of our country’s remarkable literary culture.”

And in Publishers Weekly, a report by Judith Rosen noted a continued swell of bookseller protest and activism. For example, “David Didriksen, president of Willow Books & Cafe in Acton, Mass., and a member of the board of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, called it ‘another in a long series of predatory practices by Amazon. You would think that a company of that size would be willing to just live and let live for small retailers who can’t possibly affect them. But, no, they want it all.'”

But Amazon’s hostility against mainstream America cranked up a notch beyond retailer outrage and into hints that something more could happen when Senator Olympia Snowe, the ranking member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Small 
Business and Entrepreneurship, called on Friday for Amazon to cancel the promotion. As Jonathan Easley reported in a story for the Capitol Hill newspaper, The Hill, Snowe released a statement in which she “blasted Internet retailer Amazon for its
 controversial plan to gather price data from local businesses, calling 
it ‘an attack on Main Street businesses that employ workers in our 
communities.'” Snowe added, “Amazon’s promotion — paying consumers to visit small businesses and 
leave empty-handed — is an attack on Main Street businesses that
 employ workers in our communities.”

But not only did Amazon ignore Snowe, the company is expected to flaunt the criticism and “roll out
 similar apps around the world.”

It remains to be seen if thumbing your nose at a Senator is a good idea, but meanwhile a Forbes report by janet Novack observes one way this might ultimately come back to bite Amazon in the ass: the price check app “ups the ante” in the battle to make it obey the law and collect sales tax.

As Novack notes, “physical stores … are often ready to match an online price, just as they’ll match the price from a competing store if a consumer brings in a newspaper circular.  But they simply can’t match the sales tax savings.”

And don’t think numerous state revenue officers haven’t noticed.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.