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As you may have guessed, I’m a free market capitalist. I know, mind = blown. Often, I find myself debating with others the merits of the poster child of free market capitalism: Amazon.
The conversation ultimately beats one of the many dead horses that are Amazon’s union-busting, local-business undercutting, job-destroying, competition-killing, company-guzzling, or otherwise Bezos-enriching tactics.
Let’s acknowledge that Amazon employs 1.7 million people and is a massive economic engine both on the ground and in the cloud with AWS. Nothing that large runs without a hiccup or two.
Amazon grew to this size, maintained two-day shipping, left enough direct-to-consumer brands alive for us to experience hints of consumer choice, and has yet to enslave humanity; that is a modern miracle.
But what about all the squished malls and mom & pop shops that Amazon peeled off its boots? What’s exceptional about a free market is that, when maintained adequately, it clears out the old to make room for the new, and it does this regularly.
One hundred years ago, the department store sat in the privileged position Amazon sits in today; the department store lacerated the general store, and the wound was fatal. Sears, Montgomery Ward, and others created unparalleled shopping experiences that put tens of thousands of smaller stores out of business.
The people spoke with their dollars, and the department stores grew. And as they ballooned to success, these organizations grew weary and cozy. Instead of their typical three-piece suits, they started showing up to work in PJs and Pikachu slippers.
Then came a litany of hungry young Internet entrepreneurs ready to eat their lunch. Many startups perished, but Amazon survived. The department stores were forced to consolidate, shore up their defenses, and get trapped against the ropes.
So what happens next? In our lifetime, Amazon, too, will find itself on the ropes. In the past 20 years, western civilization rapidly relinquished its livelihood to the Internet. Shopping, socializing, and all sorts of selfish, hedonistic pleasures take place from the comfort of your smartphone.
Our pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, novelty-driven animalistic subconscious gets sucked into phone activities far beyond any point an observer might consider normal. This is why I believe the Internet is an unregulated drug, and we have yet to determine what dosage, if any, is safe.
The downfall of Amazon, along with other tech giants, will come from the increasingly desperate need for real human connection and actual community. In a twist of irony, the local mom & pop shop is the David that will conquer this Goliath.
But it won’t be one store; it will be a death by a thousand cuts. Shop owners will soon realize they can offer one thing that Amazon can never replicate: a place for people to gather. Whereas bars fulfill this need, with questionable results, for romance, stores will satisfy the desire to belong to something and to meet like-minded people.
This is why we see traditional venues offer new and non-traditional experiences: boozy evenings at museums and wine tastings in restaurants. We’ve begun the slow and steady reaction to virtual reality’s lack of reality; to help that along, we must reconfigure our commercial real estate, rezone our buildings, and focus on building the community rather than merely selling to it.