The Buck Stops

I’ve noticed an interesting demonstration in the power of the dollar here in town.  An out of state grocery store chain recently purchased several stores in our area.  As is typical, there was a gradual conversion of the stores  to the name of the new company.  There were the usual perky press releases about the excitement of coming into a new area to provide value, blah blah blah.

I started hearing from people that the converted stores had much higher prices than the previous chains.  Then there was some unflattering local press.  As part of cost-saving measures, the new chain eliminated all of their courtesy clerks (the professional name for the bag boys and bag girls who help bag up as you check out and do other tasks around the store – my first job when I was 15!).  But what was reported was that they had fired 12 developmentally disabled individuals who had been working at the stores for years under the previous chain managements.  People here immediately got very upset about what they perceived as very cavalier treatment of a vulnerable group of people.

A few weeks ago I visited one of these stores for the first time.  I noticed immediately how empty it was.  There were maybe six other customers in this massive grocery store.  I noticed that the prices were extremely high.  I found the few things I wanted and skipped the rest of the shopping list and went to another grocery store.  My wife went to another one of the new stores a few days later and found it largely devoid of customers as well.  The cashier confided that their business was down to 25%  of what it used to be.  Amazing!  Every time I’ve driven by one of these new grocery stores, the parking lot has been virtually empty.  I can’t imagine how much money they must be losing, waiting for people’s opinions to change and business to increase.

That’s what came to mind when a colleague and friend, Jim, dropped an article off from the local paper.  A local Republican and Democrat both weighed in on how consumers ought to respond to repeated reports about the brutal working conditions at Amazon.com.  For over 20 years Amazon has built a reputation – both as the go-to online retailer for lots of things beyond books, and as a place that pressures employees relentlessly to improve performance.  Not surprisingly, the Democrat blamed this on capitalism as an overall economic system.  The Republican credited it to the American work ethic.  The Democrat saw the employees as victims of a predatory economic system.  The Republican noted that nobody forced anybody to work for Amazon, and in the meantime the company had supported employees despite not being profitable for 15 years.

But the issue comes down to consumers – or at least it should.  How concerned are we, really, that Amazon pushes employees so hard and expects so much of them?  The result would appear to be an amazing retail portal that allows us access to zillions of products at competitive prices with the potential of delivery to our door in two days.  What does it take to accomplish that, and are we comfortable with it?  Are we victims of an economic system that compels us to support things we don’t agree with?  Or are we empowered consumers who are able to direct our support in a manner consistent with our beliefs?

Which are you, and why?

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