Major emergency! I lost my mobile phone charger — and without an electric charger the battery would run down, with the unthinkable result of no mobile phone.
What to do? Go on Amazon. See screenshots of various charging devices. Click on a suitable one. The next morning, a new phone charger plops through my letter box, for the price of a tenner.
That’s the way we shop nowadays. Yes, we go to real shops too — and what a joy to see them open again — but delivery from Amazon has embedded itself in our way of life.
Even if we disapprove on grounds of globalisation, or that Amazon’s warehouse workers put in 10-hour shifts (there have been complaints about not having time for toilet breaks), or that Amazon is driving small traders out of business with ruthless competition — even then, we use it.
Because it offers choice — inquire about “running shoes”, and you may get 70,000 results — speed, ease of payment, and variety. Amazon can supply almost anything, from a ballpoint pen to a complex lathe machine.
During the Covid pandemic, Amazon’s sales increased threefold: its profits were up by 200%. With “non-essential” shops closed, we were using Amazon even more.
And in fairness, it was performing a constructive social purpose: it was delivering stuff to customers that they might otherwise not have been able to get.
The founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, aged 57, is recognised as the world’s richest person. His fortune is reckoned at £133bn net: his ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, received £26.7bn in a settlement when they divorced. All this comes from Amazon, which he founded in 1994.
Bezos’s family story is fascinating. He was born to a teenage mother, Jacklyn, who was still at high school, and aged 17, when she gave birth.
She had the gumption to go back and finish her schooling after having baby Jeff.
His father, Ted Jorgensen, was only 19, and the young couple married before Jeff’s birth, as couples did back then.
But they struggled financially and Ted’s job in circuses and fairs as a performing unicyclist was not a great basis for a steady income.
Eventually, they split up and Jacklyn started dating a Cuban called Miguel Bezos. They married and Jeff was adopted by Bezos, whom he came to regard as his real father. (Ted Jorgensen disappeared into obscurity, ran a bicycle shop near Phoenix, Arizona, and never saw his biological son again.)
The crucial influence on Jeff Bezos’s young life was his maternal grandfather, Lawrence Gise, a Texan rancher who had worked in missile technology for the Pentagon.
Pop Gise was practical, patriotic and wise. He taught Jeff to work on the ranch, encouraging him to be resourceful and self-reliant.
From his mother and stepfather’s home, Jeff had stability: from his grandfather, a drive for knowledge and solutions. He was bright at school and savvy about the emerging internet.
And so he had the idea, in the early 1990s, of launching an internet company which sold books: they were easy to source, market and package.
He took the risk — he already had a steady job — and that was the beginning of Amazon, and what was to become “Bezonomics”.
As Brian Dumaine writes in his study of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, like Henry Ford, pioneered new ways of doing business. Thanks to Bezos, shopping is now about “engineers, data scientists, programmers”: that’s why every time you buy an item on Amazon, the algorithm prompts you to buy something similar.
Amazon has its critics — Ken Loach’s Left-wing, yet touching, polemical movie Sorry We Missed You showed the tough lives of those in the delivery end of instant retail provision.
My local bookshop closed down some years ago because customers were browsing in the store, then buying the book from Amazon at a cheaper price.
And yet, on the plus side, Amazon has expanded the market for books, globally. It also finds rare publications.
About 10 years ago, I published a modest print edition of a play I’d written about Michael Collins boozing with Winston Churchill in 1921, Allegiance, selling the slim text for £4. It’s now out of print — but available from Amazon at £127.
Bezos’s defence is that he has created jobs too — he has 650,000 employees worldwide — and pays over the minimum wage. He has expanded technology with artificial intelligence and the creation of the — to me, sinister — Alexa voice app.
Some of his ideas have failed, but he doesn’t see failure as an obstacle to success, or expansion.
Amazon probably will go on expanding, yet there will always be customers who want to browse in a shop, try on shoes and garments before buying, ask advice from retailers. No amount of smart AI can replace that human interaction.
And old-fashioned shops could be efficient, too. My aunt in Dublin used to telephone for her groceries at 9am and Dick Glynn, from Glynn’s store, would deliver by 11, with a smile and a cheerful note of conversational banter.
Maybe Jeff Bezos just reinvented — and updated — the wheel.