The good and bad of Jeff Bezos’ legacy
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This week Jeff Bezos stepped down as the CEO of the tech giant, Amazon. He will now transition to an executive chairman role to oversee the Amazon board. Beyond his limited role at Amazon, Bezos will focus on his space company Blue Origin, starting with a trip that will change human spaceflight forever on the 20th July 2021.
Today it may be easy to forget what e-commerce felt like before Amazon, as we are surrounded by online shopping everywhere.
On September 22, 1994, two months after incorporating Amazon.com and ten months before launching the company, Jeff Bezos decided to learn how to sell books, so he took a course on how to start a bookstore, sponsored by the American Booksellers Association.
Some forty to fifty aspiring booksellers, from young people starting out to retired couples thinking about a second career, attended the four-day course at the Benson Hotel in Portland.
They sat through courses on topics such as bookstore financial operations, customer service, and handling inventory. One of the instructors was Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
What happened thereafter was a transformation by Jeff Bezos of not just how we buy books but other goods and services as well.
When Jeff Bezos first started an online book shop in his garage in 1994, even he would have struggled to envision the sheer size and impact of Amazon today. With the internet still in its infancy, Bezos' foresight on all things digital, combined with his passion for retail, enabled him to devise a revolutionary model for how consumers would one day purchase their goods.
Fast forward 27 years, and Amazon has the infrastructure and the know-how to capitalise on an eCommerce market that was skyrocketing in popularity. Bezos ran the mammoth technology corporation across three decades, building it into a dominant force in online retail, cloud hosting, media production, and artificial intelligence. Mr. Bezos helped define e-commerce as we know it and made ordering from Amazon the default for millions locked in through the Prime subscription service. But his true masterstroke maybe Amazon Web Services, a computing and cloud storage service that millions of companies turn to and has generated the bulk of Amazon’s profits. While Bezos’s stewardship of the company can be seen as a heroic mission to give everyday shoppers low-cost access to any item under the sun, his ethos has contributed to poor working conditions and harmful monopolistic practices.
When Amazon.com sold its first book, Borders Books & Music had a thriving retail empire generating about $1.6 billion a year in sales. By 2015 Borders was nothing but a memory, ushered to the grave by an e-commerce revolution led by Amazon. Borders were not alone — in the same figurative corporate graveyard are tombstones for the likes of Tower Records, Good Guys, and Circuit City. It’s not that Amazon became a one-company juggernaut that laid waste to the world’s retail landscape. Over the years, the Seattle company has struggled to generate profit. But Amazon changed the way that people shop. Now, instead of just considering in-store sales or discount coupons, shoppers routinely ask themselves, “I wonder if I can get this cheaper online?”
As Amazon displaced sales at brick-and-mortar stores, it was causing more job losses than gains. An analysis of the corporation’s impact on employment by ILSR found that, at the end of 2015, Amazon had 146,000 employees in the U.S., but had displaced enough sales at stores to force the elimination of 295,000 retail jobs. That worked out to a net loss of 149,000 jobs. It is predicted that job losses will climb as Amazon takes over more of the retail sector and ramps up its reliance on robots and drones for picking, packing, and delivering orders.
In terms of working conditions, Mr. Bezos is leaving a model that is not worth replicating. It is reported that Amazon runs its warehouses and employees like a machine. The work is often dehumanizing, and includes dashing across massive warehouses, frequent kneeling and bending, and dangerously high production quotas. According to the International Business Times, “Amazon’s productivity numbers are apparently purposely designed to be unattainable for most workers so that employees feel that they are falling down on the job and push harder to hit the impracticable levels.” In 2016, Amazon was fined by federal regulators for not recording employee injuries, including some that were severe. As Bezos moves on he has left the responsibility to improve working conditions to his successor, Andy Jassy. As for Bezos, he is now going into uncharted territory, space. There’s no doubt that he will bring innovation into the space sector. His legacy also tells us that we should be concerned. He has shown that as he innovates he also causes havoc and destruction. It’s a matter of time before we know whether he will bring destructive ways in the space sector. Before we find out, there better be a way to prevent billionaires from taking their destructive ways into space.