One of the most troubling trends of the last few decades has been the ongoing concentration of economic power into the hands of fewer and fewer people. It’s not simply a question of wealth inequality, though the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent has more than doubled since 1980. Outside major cities, Americans have fewer large employers in their cities and towns than ever. We do business with fewer companies, and fewer competitive markets exist for goods and services as a result. Companies like Amazon account for an increasingly large share of overall American spending, and the firm is starting to flex its muscle in unwelcome ways.
When Amazon launched Amazon Prime, it sold the service as a convenient way to save money on a bunch of stuff you were going to buy anyway. Now, it seems the company has decided there are certain kinds of customers it doesn’t want at all. If you want to a physical copy of The Last Jedi on Amazon, you’d best be an Amazon Prime customer already. If you aren’t, the company literally won’t sell it to you.
It’s a move worthy of the Dark Side. While there’s nothing wrong or illegal about a membership-only warehouse club — it’s Costco’s entire business model — there are sharp differences between what Amazon is doing here and a membership club. First and foremost, Amazon never tried to use Prime as a cudgel that served to gatekeep who was and wasn’t allowed to buy product off the site. Companies like Costco, meanwhile, aren’t aggressively trying to position themselves to gather even more of the average US families’ monthly spending, the way Amazon has with its purchase of Whole Foods and its launch of physical stores.
Finally, Amazon has a direct interest in pushing you towards the direct video option, as opposed to selling you a Blu-ray or DVD. If you buy the film via Amazon Video, you now have a relationship with Amazon you’ll mentally invoke every time you want to watch it. As you log into the company’s website and navigate to your video library, Amazon has the opportunity to try and sell you on other content you might like to watch instead, as well as prompting you to try a Prime subscription.
This isn’t unique to just The Last Jedi, as Slate notes. Beauty and the Beast, Thor: Ragnarok, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 are all restricted to Prime members and Prime members only. It’s possible this reflects a low-level war with Disney, rather than an attempt to shove people towards Amazon Prime. Slate also points out that there’s no good option between which of the two firms you root for. Amazon accounts for a massive 44 percent of all online purchases already, while Disney will own 40 percent of the entire film industry once it merges with Fox Studios. Pick any side you like — you’re supporting a massive corporation that already wields outsize power and influence rapidly sucking the air out of the proverbial room.
Of course, some people will argue that it doesn’t matter if Amazon accounts for 44 percent of online shopping, provided you can literally still buy the film elsewhere. This is nonsense. Amazon is absolutely aware of how much it matters that it accounts for nearly half of all online shopping. It knows that for every customer who ultimately opts to buy a physical version of a movie from Target or Best Buy, whether online or in-person, there will be those who either decide to pull the trigger on the streaming version or who decide to become Prime members. Amazon undoubtedly prefers the latter option, but it wins stickier customers no matter what. The buyer who opts to purchase an Amazon Video today may be the buyer that subscribes to Prime tomorrow.
Best of all, Amazon knows that while you may wind up going to Target or Best Buy eventually, you’ll visit Amazon first. The company’s overwhelming domination of the online sales market give it the effective right of first refusal — by which we mean that if shoppers default to checking Amazon first, Amazon is essentially “deciding” if it wants those visitors as shoppers.
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