Millennials Don’t Love Capitalism but Can’t Stop Using Amazon
"I can't even imagine what could come out next that would even make me change my shopping."
Image composite by Lia Kantrowitz. Photo by Westend61/Getty Images/Photo of Jeff Bezos by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
In the ground-level apartment in Des Moines, Iowa, where Reid Chandler, 27, and Kelly Parker, 30, once lived as roommates, Amazon was practically a third resident.
"We would have an Amazon box outside of our door almost every day," said Chandler, who works in human resources for investment management and insurance company Principal. "I would always be like, ‘Okay, Kelly, what did you order this time?’"
Parker moved to Denver in July, and her Amazon habit moved with her. She receives recurring deliveries of dishwasher tablets, laundry detergent, toilet paper. When she ventures out to a mall, she visits mainly for the experience of shopping on a Saturday or admiring Christmas decorations.
"I can't even imagine what could come out next that would even make me change my shopping on Amazon," said Parker, a client implementation manager at Principal. "It totally changed the way I've done everything.”
In the two-bedroom they shared on the fork of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, Chandler and Parker unwittingly cultivated a microcosm of a larger mindset where shopping and politics are mutually exclusive, or at least not fully intertwined. As a whole, millennials—the oft-scrutinized generation born in the 1980s and 1990s—are known as proponents of earnest social consciousness who at least aspire to support local merchants behind humble storefronts. The generation also makes up a significant percentage of the support base for democratic socialist candidates who have accused Amazon of epitomizing the perils of late capitalism.
But as many 20- and 30-somethings struggle to make ends meet, they continue to purchase readily from Amazon, an online retail giant routinely accused of preying on smaller rivals while treating its own workers like cogs in an ever-expanding machine.
There seems to be a subconscious tug-of-war at play: convenience and efficiency pulling in one direction, ethics and political ideology in the other. One recent market-research survey stretched the bounds of credulity when it found that 44 percent of millennials would rather give up sex for a year than quit Amazon. Still, most survey data suggests a unique fealty to—and trust in—Amazon from Americans in general and Millennials in particular.
Chandler compared the conundrum to that of recycling.
"For an everyday American, if you don't have recycling bins on, like, every corner, people are just going to throw their trash in the trash," Chandler said. "I want to support those local stores, but if they don't have a website, or if they're not as easy as Amazon, then how am I supposed to realistically do that when Amazon's making it so much easier for me to shop?"
Chandler said he works two part-time jobs in addition to his full-time gig as he tries to pay off student loans and credit-card debt. He still buys groceries and household items from Hy-Vee, the grocery store across the street from his current apartment, and once purchased a salt lamp there. The store did not sell bulbs, though, so he ordered a pack of 15 on Amazon for $5.
"Living in the Midwest, we're surrounded by mom-and-pop stores,” Chandler said. "I hate to see those people get crushed and taken out of the market by a bigger player like Amazon. But, at the same time, as guilty as I feel saying this, I'm still probably going to go with Amazon over them if it is more efficient and it's cheaper.”
That conflict is age-old, according to economist and historian Marc Levinson, who wrote the book, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America.
During the early 20th century, Levinson explained, there was a major campaign against chain stores—considered monopolists—that were putting smaller retailers out of business. Even so, many critics were still shopping at the chains themselves. “The chain stores had better prices; and so even as people wanted to preserve mom and pop, it was going to cost them a lot of money out of pocket,” Levinson said. “And mom and pop probably didn’t have as wide a selection of products.”
Despite the parallels, Amazon is unlike anything shoppers have seen historically because it has figured out how to benefit from sales other merchants make, Levinson argued. “Amazon is saying to retailers, ‘We’re happy if you do well; we’re happy if people buy your merchandise rather than our merchandise—so long as we get a cut of the sale,” he said.
And yet, as critics of Amazon question its treatment of its own employees and warn that the company can use sales data to put even its own third-party sellers out of business, millennials—many of whom came of age during the Great Recession of the late 2000s—can’t seem to stay away.
In an episode of the Netflix series Patriot Act, comedian and political commentator Hasan Minhaj, 33, simultaneously makes an argument for remaining wary of Amazon and professes himself addicted. "I'm way more lazy than I am woke," he jokes. "We've all been in these compromising positions before, right? Look, I deleted Uber. I was like, ‘Uber, you're done!’ And then I landed in Vancouver and I was like, ’Damnit, they don't have Lyft.’ Convenience is the commodity that matters most to our generation.”
Sahib Singh, 24, a risk management consultant living in Atlanta, Georgia, said Minhaj's episode opened his eyes to the power Amazon has—and the need for regulation. "They have control over the market," Singh said.
Still, Singh said he continued to shop Amazon out of convenience.
In July, David Park, 26, posted a photo of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram. In the caption, he referred to the duo as "leaders of the political revolution." In the 2016 election, Park said, he eventually voted for Hillary Clinton, but had hoped Sanders would be the Democrats’ nominee, in part for his stance on money in politics.
Park, who lives in Manhattan and works as a front desk attendant at a gym, said he did not shop Amazon. That had nothing to do with his political leanings, he insisted—he simply prefers to see products in person before purchasing, and so will shop at stores like H&M and JC Penney. The building in which he lives also requires him to be home to receive deliveries sometimes, he explained, which is an inconvenience.
He’s not exactly alone in doing things the old-school way: The US Department of Commerce quarterly e-commerce sales report released last month showed approximately 90 percent of retail sales took place at physical locations; the same report estimated about 98 percent of retail sales occurred offline back in 2005.
Yet conversations with millennials about Amazon on one hand and the politics of retail on the other suggested they often found it nearly impossible to live their values in the modern economy.
"When it comes to people shopping in these giant corporations, regardless of what they say about their politics, at the end of the day, there's really no where else left for people to go," Park argued. Amazon's "giant foothold" in the American economy, he suggested, was the result of a lack of alternatives that meet three basic consumer needs: affordable pricing, product selection, and trustworthiness.
"People need to look towards a company with credibility, and apparently Amazon has that," he said.
Then there are the more structural factors. Countless trend pieces and studies have pointed out that legions of millennials may have put off making major life moves like buying houses, getting married, or starting families because of debt and stagnant income. But they’re still getting older, and that often seems to mean compromise as they seek out the trappings of adulthood.
"I think a lot of the conversation still assumes that Millennials are just out of college and just starting out in their lives," said Katherine Cullen, director of consumer and industry insights for the National Retail Federation. "The reality is, most millennials today are in their mid-to-late 20s to mid-30s."
Rather than a change in mindset—the age group remains “value-minded,” looking for balance between price, quality, and convenience, she said—Cullen described a change in the sorts of purchases millennials are making. Many are no longer shopping for just themselves; instead, they are buying products for homes or children.
Of course, it is possible to avoid Amazon entirely: Jesse Brickel, a 30-year-old musician with a day job, said he had been bypassing the company since March.
“The apathy of the majority of people to the growing power of Amazon is honestly disturbing to me—seeing my peers choose convenience over thought, essentially voting for a future where [Jeff] Bezos runs everything and we slip into corporate dystopia,” said Brickel, who lives in Ridgewood, Queens and voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary in 2016.
Brickel acknowledged his personal choice not to patronize the company was not sufficient to make change, and insisted he was well aware of its value as a service.
“But there are consequences for that,” he added. He imagined, with dread, a retail landscape in which Amazon was one of very few options—if not the only one. He also decried Amazon’s pervasiveness in his city’s landscape: Even before the company’s Long Island City “HQ2” move, delivery trucks filled with Amazon boxes, or apartment hallways littered with the same, were practically inescapable. (It should be noted that Brickel, too, has watched the aforementioned Patriot Act episode.)
In avoiding Amazon, Brickel found himself making other decisions he called “unethical.” For financial reasons, he noted, he tended to shop fast-fashion retailers, for instance.
Still, for Brickel, it was unfathomable to completely divorce politics and how he shopped.
“I think you can compartmentalize them, but you can’t separate them,” he said. “We have our [political] candidates because they were bought.”
In the 2016 election, both Chandler and Parker voted for Clinton—neither had been on the Bernie Sanders bandwagon. (In all honesty, Parker was hoping Joe Biden would be on the ballot, she said.)
When she votes these days, Parker focuses on social issues, which seem more tangible to her—she can imagine how a candidate’s position on human rights matters, the LGBTQ community, immigration and the like might affect her friends and family. Between now and the next election, “my tax bracket’s not going to change,” she argued.
Chandler, who identifies as gay and was raised in a conservative and southern Baptist community, said he was inspired by Sanders’s energy, but not sold on the idea of Democratic socialism.
“I think capitalism is key to American exceptionalism,” Chandler said. “However, I think my generation is the first [in a long time] to admit that capitalism isn’t perfect. And that government regulation in some capacity is crucial to prevent things like monopolies.”
When he shops, though, Chandler is not thinking politics.
“I want cheap and fast, without losing quality,” he said. “It’s a strange dichotomy, I know, because I’m sure what goes on behind the scenes for me to get those things would break my heart.”
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