At the start of 2018, everyone loved Amazon. The company had very recently announced a Willy Wonka-ish contest that would deliver a brand new headquarter to one special city in the United States. In one act, a mercurial and generous Jeff Bezos would bestow a city with riches beyond their imagination: an all-American tech company, tens of thousands of jobs, and $5 billion in investments.
By the time a winner was actually announced last month, reality had sunk in. Amazon had no plans to revitalize a struggling metropolitan area in the next great tale of the American Dream, as many believed it would. Instead, its presence would reshape the very character of wherever it moved, likely driving out longtime residents and replacing them with imported, highly paid tech bros from across the country. The contest had just been a ploy for attention — and plenty of bargaining power.
Amazon’s 2018 report card could have sounded like this: Amazon raised wages, released some cool products, and announced plans to move into a struggling city in need of attention — an easy A. But Amazon constantly found itself stepping on its own toes this year. Its contest had residents of shortlisted cities praying they wouldn’t be chosen, and its biggest publicity move – raising its introductory wage to $15 an hour (which only came after extended embarrassment and pressure) – was later followed up by a number of caveats.
Functionally, Amazon’s 2018 was a fine one. But messaging wise, it might have been when things took a turn.
By and large, shoppers are still loving and enjoying Amazon. The company remains more trusted than banks, nonprofits, and religious institutions, according to a recent survey. It sold more than 180 million items over Thanksgiving weekend, and Cyber Monday was its biggest shopping day in history. The company’s cashier-free checkout technology has now spread to nine locations in three states, and it released a number of great new consumer products this year.
And yet, you can’t say 2018 went particularly well for Amazon either, mostly by its own doing. When frustration over Amazon’s warehouse wages hit a boiling point earlier this year, the company picked a fight with Senator Bernie Sanders and his derisively named “Stop BEZOS Act” before ultimately giving in and accepting the easy win of just raising its employees’ wages. Amazon looked magnanimous in the moment, but its act was colored by months of fighting and the caveats on pay increases that came next.
HQ2 was the biggest own goal. Splitting Amazon’s fabled prize in two was very possibly the right decision for both Amazon and all the cities involved, but it felt like a major betrayal after more than a year of hype and hope that the company would use its transformative power for good. And in the end, after the all the speculation around tiny towns that Amazon could choose to restore, the company chose to put one location in the not-so-tiny neighborhood of Long Island City, an already densely populated, gentrifying area struggling with a housing crisis. Amazon will very likely exacerbate those issues for years to come, and, rather than being welcomed with open arms, has found itself the focus of community pushback as the transformation begins.
Despite being an evergreen enemy of President Trump, Amazon also failed to read the room when it came to political momentum. It pitched a facial recognition system to ICE, just as other companies found themselves being protested by their own employees for ongoing contracts with the immigration agency most famous this year for separating children from their parents and housing them in cages. Amazon’s employees protested too, but months later, the company confirmed it would continue selling the software to law enforcement.
Meanwhile, the case that tech giants have become too big and need to be broken up is raging. Amazon certainly did not get the brunt of it — Facebook and Google were the primary targets. But it wasn’t altogether ignored either, with the EU beginning to look into data collection practices seen as potentially anti-competitive. Trump finally even got the smallest of wins, with the USPS issuing a report saying that its package service, which the president claims Amazon is royally ripping off, has “not been priced with profitability in mind,” suggesting an increase could come down the road.
Worker injuries and deaths have continued at Amazon’s warehouses, too, with dozens injured just this month when an automated machine punctured a can of bear repellant filled with capsaicin. In July, the Guardian reported on how Amazon’s worker comp policies were failing employees after they were injured. And it would be good if Amazon could go just one year without a story on someone being forced to pee in a bottle.
Amazon ends 2018 largely the same company. Immensely successful, with powerful momentum on any number of fronts — online shopping, voice assistants, smart devices, cloud services, and so on. But it’s hard to feel like our broader understanding of Amazon might not be turning. Amazon is a wonderful company that brings lots of things to our doorstep for very low prices. It is also a behemoth, with tentacles in the retail industry, the entertainment industry, the grocery industry, and the very infrastructure of both the internet and the delivery of physical goods.
That’s all well and good when you just want a six-pack of lint rollers delivered by Friday (I do!). But it’s getting harder to ignore everything it takes to get there.
Final Grade: C
The Verge 2018 report card: Amazon
- Great new Echos and Kindles
- $15 introductory wage
- Cashier-free stores actually work
- HQ2 rollout
- Warehouse working conditions
- YouTube still not properly supported on Fire TV
- The Romanoffs was frankly very strange