Amazon Prime Isn’t Always The Answer

As a consumer and a mom, I need to show my son that the easiest way isn’t always the best

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

FFour pages. That’s the length of the list of things my 12-year-old needs in his backpack for overnight camp this summer. From synthetic-blend underwear to wool socks to toe-protecting sandals, the packing list is very specific — and perfectly calibrated to trigger a city-dwelling parent’s every anxiety about sending her child off the grid in the wilds of Vermont. Lyme disease! Mosquito bites! Dank drawers on a long hike!

As I make a beeline for the computer to start panic-filling my Amazon Prime shopping cart, my son, the camper, hovers behind me. “Mom,” he says, looking with concern at the logo at the top of the page. He recently read a book called Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, and I know what’s coming next: “In that book, the author works in an Amazon warehouse,” he explains patiently. “It’s pretty terrible. They wear trackers and if they don’t find the items that we ordered fast enough, they get fired. Can we shop somewhere else?”

He’s right, of course. But I quickly calculate the alternative to Amazon Prime one-day delivery: Take an afternoon off work in a busy week, pick him up from school, and make a run to an outdoor gear store in Manhattan, along with a slew of other geographically dispersed stores, to fill the whole checklist. We’d be frustrated with each other, likely not be able to find everything anyway, and I’d be stressed at work and playing catch-up the next day. Guiltily, I keep clicking.

I’m hardly alone in giving in to the seductive convenience of Amazon, which has its much-hyped annual “Prime Day.” With its Prime service, which offers free shipping, streaming video, and other perks, the e-commerce giant crossed the milestone of 100 million subscribers worldwide last year. More than half of all U.S. households will be Amazon Prime members by the end of this year, according to forecasts.

My very unscientific guess is that about a quarter of us have regrets about our Prime habit (certainly a large proportion questions Amazon’s ethics and values) — and even beyond the notorious working conditions for Amazon workers (blue-collar and white-collar alike), the list of reasons to stop giving our money to this company is as long as my son’s camp supplies list.

To start with, there’s privacy: When you first type in a search for, say, paraben-free mosquito repellent, it feeds the Amazon algorithm that’s building a personal profile of you that will be used to track and sell you products for the rest of your life, in futuristic ways we cannot yet fathom. Surveillance economy? Check.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a noise? If it’s just one click, can we forget the impact it has?

Next comes the product selection: Are those reviews even real? Will this repellent really keep my kid smelling like lavender while protecting him from Lyme disease? Wait, how big is 4.5 oz anyhow? Is that enough? Crap, I’ll just put a whole bunch of different ones in my cart. Misinformation campaigns? Ignition of compulsive shopping tendencies? Check and check.

Time to pay and get out of here. An hour has gone by and I need to get dinner started. This was supposed to save me precious hours, wasn’t it? Screen addiction sapping attention and focus from loved ones and daily life? Check.

What about all those too-big cardboard boxes, the ones that will start arriving at various hours, each packed with reams of bubble wrap? (You always request that your items be bundled into one delivery, but it never seems to happen!) And what about all the fuel-guzzling trucks loaded with the stuff you’ve ordered, puffing exhaust out on congested highways? Environmental ennui? Check.

And then there’s that nice old-timey pharmacy that used to be around the corner, the one that sold the pastilles. Did Amazon kill that small business? Does clicking “buy now” hasten the demise of my neighborhood’s local economy? Check.

Also, does buying those wool socks just make Jeff Bezos richer? Hell, check. (At least he saved the Washington Post, I mutter to myself.)

If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a noise? If it’s just one click, can we forget the impact it has?

OK, let’s stop, I tell myself, and step away from the screen. I need to show my son that we still have a choice. That the easiest way isn’t always the best.

“I hear you,” I tell my son. Keep asking good questions. How about this? Let’s order as much as we can from the REI resale website, and ask family members and friends if we can borrow stuff they might have, like woolen socks. Let’s walk to the local mall this weekend to get what we can there. We’ll buy the toiletries at a local shop. And we’ll order anything we can’t find elsewhere on Amazon.

It might be a little boring, but you know what? That’s OK — in fact, it can be good. Maybe, instead of booking our kids back-to-back with gymnastics, playdates, dinner with the grandparents, we need to slow down and do the dull work that used to be required to run a life.

Too often the consumer experience has become invisible for kids. The parent goes online, clacks on a keyboard, and ta-da! The stuff magically appears at the doorway. It’s easy to skip the steps that used to be part of the consumer experience: going to the store, comparison shopping, trying on clothes; buying one pair of pants that fits right (instead of clicking “buy” on three that might fit); looking a salesperson in the eye and saying “thank you”; lugging it all home, and feeling physically spent.

IRL shopping with my camper was indeed a little tedious. But we got it done, and it was even kind of relaxing. Now, we’re going through that damned checklist and marking things off one by one. I feel supremely satisfied that we hunted down the mess kit, calamine lotion, and ultraviolet-ray-proof hat together. I’m looking forward to the moment when we fill that big hiking backpack the night before he goes.

Then we’ll probably flop down on the couch, and watch something together on Amazon Prime before he heads for woods. We’re all just doing the best we can, right?

Journalist, mom, Swiss-Persian New Yorker. Host of @NPR’s @TEDRadioHour + @ZigZagPod. Author of Bored+Brilliant. Media Entrepreneur-ish.

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