Amazon Keeps a Low Profile

Discussion
Apr 20, 2012

Other corporate titans, from Disney to Nike to Walmart, have received greater scrutiny as they’ve became larger and more dominant in the marketplace. Amazon now appears to be facing similar questions and critics. The surprise, at least to some, is that the company just isn’t offering much of a response.

The Seattle Times recently completed a comprehensive four-part series covering Amazon’s apparently poor record on local philanthropy, its aggressive pricing war with book publishers, its state-by-state battle over taxes and sweaty working conditions in its warehouses. The investigation largely followed up on known charges heard over the last year. Amazon offered little cooperation with the piece.

But the local online reaction was loudly negative to the piece, which some, in hindsight, said shouldn’t have been surprising given the large number of Seattle citizens now employed by Amazon.

The uproar prompted Times executive editor David Boardman to defend the series in a column last weekend. With the aid of hundreds of interviews, "we were able to shed light on largely hidden aspects of a company that is as secretive as it is successful," he wrote.

He added that as one of the city’s largest employers, "It seemed not only natural, but imperative, that The Seattle Times, as the major journalistic entity in Amazon’s hometown, would examine the company’s practices as a corporate citizen."

Those in favor of the series said Amazon should be held accountable and faulted its lack of support for Seattle’s community.

The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times found the lack of cooperation with the piece from Amazon as particularly noteworthy. Both claimed it followed a "low-profile" pattern seen by Amazon over the years given the limited access it offers to media and how it often skimps on financial details. That includes offering vague details around Kindle sales compared to full-disclosure of iPad sales by Apple.

Describing Amazon as "more like King Kong in the jungle, a powerful, largely invisible and vaguely threatening presence," the AP also pointed to the fact that no Amazon logos can be found on their many local buildings in Seattle. The fact that Amazon’s new headquarters broke ground in 2009 with the mayor and governor in attendance but no Amazon executives was seen as one of many examples of Amazon’s secretive nature.

In response to the Times article, Amazon only offered a brief statement, "At Amazon, if we do our job right, our greatest contribution to the good of society will come from our core business activities: lowering prices, expanding selection, driving convenience, driving frustration-free packaging, creating Kindle, innovating in web services, and other initiatives we’ll work hard on in the future."

Discussion Questions: Should Amazon be more transparent about its business practices? What effects, if any, may Amazon’s secretive nature ultimately have on its reputation with consumers?

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9 Comments on "Amazon Keeps a Low Profile"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Secrecy has worked for them so far. Look, people don’t like Apple’s manufacturing practices but they still buy Macs, and iPods, and iPads and iGuessWhateverTheyWant.

Ian Percy
Guest
10 years 1 month ago
There’s another thing going on here. Regardless of what sector we work in or the size of our business, there is one thing no organization escapes … and that’s the unstoppable life cycle. Everything in the universe is born, becomes established, matures and dies. Most of us know this as the old ‘S’ curve model. In pretty well all cases, it’s what we do internally in our businesses that move us inevitably along the life cycle. Sometimes we move slowly and sometimes quickly. In these extremely large organizations the move toward the precipice may be slow, but the drop-off is sudden; “the harder they fall” principle. Consequently it appears that “out of the blue” a big corporation is in trouble. With ‘secretive’ organizations the fall is even more surprising. Let me be quick to add that corporate death can be avoided by ‘jumping the curve’, recreating or transforming the business and literally starting a new life cycle. JCPenney, for example, is trying to do exactly that. Sears seems to have tried a jump but missed.… Read more »
Ben Ball
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

“Should Amazon be more transparent about its business practices?” What? Like Lowe’s maybe?

Maybe I’m just feeling cynical this morning — it is rainy and overcast here in Chicago today — but to me, the most telling line in Tom’s write up is: “Those in favor of the series said Amazon should be held accountable and faulted for its lack of support for Seattle’s community.”

That sounds a lot like “Hey, they’re doin’ good over there and we want some of it!”

Rhonda Berg
Guest
Rhonda Berg
10 years 1 month ago

Looking at their ACSI scores over time (theACSI.org), they are doing fine. Customers love them. LOVE them. They provide what their market wants: good prices, selection, product availability, customized recommendations, reviews, etc. Unless we find out that they are doing something really horrible, the goodwill and loyalty that they have built up over time is likely to continue.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Amazon is living up to its values; again we have a problem where the news is not happy when they can not make news rather than report it.

They reported something and the public did not respond the way they wanted them to so they are trying to make something that most of the public does not care about into something they can report on.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Are there specific issues to be investigated? Examining the company just because it is large is hardly a reason. What would be revealed? What is the purpose?

Tim Callan
Guest
Tim Callan
10 years 1 month ago
Amazon makes a good point in its public statement. Oftentimes there is a tendency for self-elected community hall monitors to measure a company’s contribution on some arbitrary yardstick of what they feel it should be. In Amazon’s case, it employs a huge number of Seattle residents and has generated fast wealth inside the greater metro area. It has been foundational in driving the e-commerce revolution and inspires technologists, entrepreneurs, authors, and ordinary citizens the world over. So maybe Amazon doesn’t send executives to ground breaking ceremonies for new buildings. Why on Earth would we care? As a CMO and long time technology executive, I like to see tech companies giving back in their areas of expertise. Microsoft gives a lot of computer hardware and software to charitable organizations, schools, and third-world countries, for example. That’s a philanthropic policy that matches the company’s core value. Along the same lines I’d rather see Amazon encouraging first-time authors or protecting free speech than engaging in the same set of cookie-cutter programs than everyone else does.
Richard Wakeham
Guest
Richard Wakeham
10 years 1 month ago

The consumers, stock holders, and the many suppliers (many of them small businesses) are really the only ones with “skin in the game.” The press? They just don’t like to be ignored. Good for Amazon!!

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
10 years 1 month ago

Seattle should be aware that living in the shadow of a volcano is risk enough. Amazon has a viable business model and has the ability to move at will. While it isn’t quite as easy as putting a laptop on hibernate and hopping a plane, it still isn’t very difficult. I live in an area that is equal to Seattle and would gladly offer Amazon millions and millions in tax incentives to relocate here. Why should Amazon or any corporation have to put up with “investigative journalism” when these same journalist can’t/won’t investigate our government or the banks or Wall Street?

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