Editorial: Amazon comes full circle

Amazon Inc. has no parallel in American history. Its grip on the economy and its reach into our personal lives is unprecedented.

The biggest retailer in the United States, and the third-most-valuable company in the world, may now be coming to a vacant mall near you, filling the spots of the businesses it helped eviscerate.

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The e-commerce giant is reportedly in talks with Simon Property Group, the nation’s largest mall owner, to take over old J.C. Penney and Sears stores, two anchor establishments that have filed for bankruptcy. The irony of Amazon seeking to convert former retail chains into its own fulfillment centers can be lost on no one.

Amazon wants space closer to where its customers live to get goods into their hands faster, and malls need tenants to replace bankrupt stores. On the face of it, all parties will benefit from such an agreement; however, the rise of Amazon has left a trail of devastation behind that cannot easily be measured.

Amazon’s strategy of relentlessly low pricing brought it more customers and helped snuff out competitors, but this resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of retail jobs across America, along with the devastation of communities that these small businesses supported.

In our pre-coronavirus world, the virtue of commerce was that it brought people together. Amazon’s e-commerce model severed these exchanges from human interaction and place. What do we lose with Amazon’s one-click shopping model? Casual encounters with friends and strangers, and the trust that develops from looking people in the eyes during these interactions.

Amazon now has its own brands that compete in a marketplace that it created, and it produces everything from suits to multivitamins. Amazon studios produce television shows, movies and comics. Amazon has a publishing house, a home grocery delivery service and surveillance technology — benignly called Alexa — that has been embraced by tens of millions of Americans, making the company’s reach into our personal lives especially disturbing.

By branching out into all these fields, the company has been able to grow and crush smaller rivals, including startups, which are the primary source of job creation in America. The number of startups launched every year has fallen by nearly half since the 1970s, and the trend of corporate consolidation, personified by Amazon, coincides with stagnant wages and income inequality.

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Yes, vacant land not generating taxes for municipalities is an objectively bad thing, and the jobs that will come with the opening of fulfillment centers should be celebrated; however, what’s going to happen to these jobs (40% of Amazon’s warehouse workers are temporary) as AI develops and the company creates robots, driverless cars and unmanned drones to deliver its packages?

Although these fulfillment centers will not attract the foot traffic that malls once did, they’ll help pay the bills, and in today’s economy, that is no small thing. However, these spaces were once vibrant centers of commerce filled with music and people, and now they will be warehouses where boxes are packed — and that is a lamentable thought.