I look so fit and healthy here due to the latest weight-loss craze – tropical fruits, plus protein from dried rainforest bugs.
Nah, the headline actually refers to fasting from Amazon.com, the online behemoth.
Like most crash diets, I’ve cheated. But I’ve had some success and lost some psychic weight.
Amazon’s super-handy “past orders” record shows that Nora and I bought 3 Christmas presents from Amazon this year, compared to 8 in 2019. I’m trying not to, but I might buy one more.
Amazon is soooo easy to use and their prices are at least as good as anywhere else. Then throw in rapid free shipping as a Prime member, and the cost, selection, and convenience can not be beat. Did I mention the no-hassle return policy?
Amazon has a ginormous presence in Baltimore. That’s normally something I’d be giddy about. Like most people, I’m a homer. I love the Ravens and Orioles and Fort McHenry and Inner Harbor and everything Baltimore. Love the one you’re with, is my feeling. And I’ve been with Baltimore practically my whole life.
How ginormous? Let’s count the ways (from the NYT):
- Greater Baltimore accounts for 1% of Amazon’s sales nationwide (about its share of the population), but originates 2.4% of Amazon’s US shipments
- At BWI airport, Amazon’s shipping exceeds that of FedEx and UPS combined. Their BWI facility has bays for 93 tractor-trailers to load and unload at once.
- Amazon operates two mammoth warehouses – one in Baltimore City at the shuttered GM assembly plant and one in Baltimore County (photo following) at the long-gone Bethlehem Steel plant. The city one covers 27 acres of floor space, 2,500 employees, and 14 miles of conveyor belts.
The old GM plant operated for seven decades and in its final years, line workers made $35 an hour in today’s money. Baltimore Amazon floor workers earn up to $18 an hour.
The GM plant employed 8,000 at its peak; Bethlehem Steel employed 30,000. Amazon has a total of 4,500 or so workers at the two warehouses.
That’s no indictment of Amazon. Just the result of decades of outsourcing American manufacturing to low-cost Asia. If Amazon has to exist, it’s best that it’s occupying abandoned buildings in Baltimore, and employing its residents.
I remember reading a Harvard case study on Amazon in 2001 when I was attending business school at night. The Seattle company was growing like kudzu then, but with massive annual losses. It wasn’t clear it would ever ultimately be successful.
But with ruthless operational efficiency and shrewd utilization of tax-free internet sales, the e-tailer continued to gain market share and now accounts for an estimated 50% of all online US sales. In this pandemic year with everyone denning at home, its growth has surely accelerated.
And with success comes additional advantages. According to the Maryland Department of Commerce, Amazon has received $65M in tax incentives and loans to build the two big warehouses and related smaller facilities. In 2018, the city and state tried (but failed) to throw another $3.8B at Amazon to become a 2nd (or 3rd) headquarters location. Instead, Northern Virginia and New York were the lucky(?) winners.
While Amazon thrives, brick and mortar stores stumble and fail. Stebbins Anderson. Shofer’s Furniture. Greetings and Readings. Half of Harborplace shops.
Businesses open and close all the time – it’s a natural component of any healthy market economy. But the pace of closures is alarming, and it’s only partially COVID’s fault.
Amazon is doing what Walmart did a couple decades ago. Swooping into town and driving out local retailers.
What distinguishes one city or state or region from another? It’s the people and the culture and the unique things to do.
When a friend or relative visits from out-of-town, we take them to The Avenue. Not the fake one at the mall in White Marsh that features Bath and Body Works and Old Navy, but the one in Hampden, where practically every store is locally-owned and unique to Baltimore.
But in the last year, Avenue home goods store Trohv closed, and one-of-a-kind shoe and chocolate store Ma Petite Shoe transitioned to online-only. Hampden Junque made the same move.
Loss of local identity is bad enough, but it’s worse than that. Amazon employs a fraction of the retail jobs it eliminates. In its Baltimore warehouses, it employs hundreds of robots.
Despite its volume of orders, Amazon ranks just 14th among local employers for number of workers.
For a city that already struggles with high unemployment and associated crime and failing schools, it’s another cruel blow.
What to Do?
This Christmas, we were more deliberate about avoiding Amazon when practicable.
Holed up at home, it’s been difficult to visit local stores. And I tend to be very specific in my gift searching – “realistic rat with genuine fur” was a recent google search – which doesn’t generally align well with local retail offerings.
So I’ve been using Etsy more. More so than Amazon, it is filled with independent sellers, many of whom make their own products instead of importing them from China. I’ve purchased 8 Christmas gifts from there.
And I’m a big believer in experience gifts. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is a great outdoor attraction to socially distancing at, and they have a cute baby chimp, Maisie. And check out Airbnb, of all places, for some interesting virtual experiences. Our friend Hannah recently treated us to a top-rate Airbnb magic show. The magician was located in Singapore and the only other attendees were a couple in Mexico.
Limited funds? See my 8 Rules for Successful Gift-Giving on a Budget.
Amazon doesn’t only deliver gloom and doom. This week brought news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott has donated $4.2B to charity over the past four months. And that $40M of it went to Baltimore’s Morgan State University, representing their largest-ever donation.
That’s one Amazon Christmas gift that I can wholeheartedly support.
Merry Christmas everyone!