1. Business

David Lazarus: Boycott Amazon? Not that easy

Published Aug. 28, 2015

There are plenty of examples of consumers flexing their economic muscle in response to what they see as businesses behaving badly.

Take the boycott of California grapes in the 1960s over mistreatment of farmworkers. Or the boycott of Chick-fil-A in 2012 over the fast-food chain's opposition to same-sex marriage.

So what, if anything, should be done about

The world's largest e-tailer has been in hot water ever since the New York Times ran a front-page story about the company's employment practices. It included tales of workers being bullied, harassed and basically made to feel miserable.

The enduring image from the story was that of Amazon staffers routinely breaking down in tears at their desks.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and chief executive, didn't deny the allegations. He just said this was all news to him.

Be that as it may, Amazon customers face a quandary. Do they continue shopping on the site as if nothing were amiss? Or do they respond in some way so the company understands their concern?

"These are very interesting questions," said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of marketing at USC's Marshall School of Business. "You might think about boycotting, but that's difficult given the sheer size of Amazon."

Like me, Perner is a regular Amazon customer. And like me, he's feeling conflicted about doing business with a company that may ride roughshod over its workers.

"I'm still trying to make sense of it all — what's the truth, what isn't," Perner said. "It would be very hard to give Amazon up."

The article included a story of an employee who was quoted as saying that she had to leave for a business trip the day after she miscarried twins. "The work is still going to need to get done," she said her boss told her.

Does the American consumer want to buy products from a digital dynamo that pushes its employees around? Or is the American consumer willing to look the other way to keep enjoying low prices and free shipping for orders over $35?

"I don't think you'll see much of a response from Amazon customers," predicted Ann Bastianelli, senior adjunct professor of marketing at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "At the end of the day, people will do the most convenient thing."

That seemed to be the case in 2011 after reports that Amazon forced warehouse employees near Allentown, Pa., to work in 114-degree heat, with paramedics waiting nearby for when they'd collapse. There was a protest, and Bezos promised to install air conditioners. But it seemed as if many customers shrugged off the incident.

Bastianelli suggested that sometimes the ends justify the means. She recalled working around 1980 with Indiana's Bob Knight, who was the winningest college basketball coach at the time but also was known for his angry outbursts.

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"I'm a big fan of coach Knight," Bastianelli said. "The fans wanted to win, period. He could take things that were ordinary and make them extraordinary."

The same could be said of Amazon. There's no question that the company is really good at what it does. That's why Wall Street hardly flinched after this week's bad-place-to-work story ran.

And it's clear that, unpleasant though the conditions may be, Amazon is no forced-labor sweatshop for its white-collar employees. They're free to seek gigs elsewhere in the tech world.

My response as a customer, therefore, isn't to take my business elsewhere. I mean, where would I go to match Amazon's impressive service and vast inventory?

"When consumers are concerned about a company's practices or policy positions, it's more effective to make your concerns known to the company in a public way, rather than just privately boycotting the company," advised Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group.

Here's how you can have an impact: Bezos' email address is — and I'm told he really reads his email.

Let him know you're not cool with the company being uncool.


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