The Stranger has left zillions of voice mails over the years at Amazon's media-relations hotline seeking more information about the company's labor practices and its spats with book publishers. Amazon doesn't call us back. Amazon doesn't call anyone back. "Does Amazon's Spokesperson Have the World's Easiest Job? (All He Says Is 'No Comment')" was the headline on a jimromenesko.com blog post last summer. James Marcus, a former early Amazon employee and now the executive editor of Harper's magazine, told the New York Times: "Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: 'An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.'"
But Amazon's headquarters in South Lake Union are not far from The Stranger's headquarters, so I took the five-minute bike ride last week to see if I could get some employees to talk to me. About anything. I walked on spotless sidewalks past modern high-rises, a packed yoga studio, a garish sushi restaurant, and a store offering designer bathtubs and sinks. I walked past a red Porsche as the owner of it was paying for parking. I asked if I could take a photo of it, and he said sure. He said he was an Amazon employee, but he had no time to talk.
I walked past sharply dressed workers, many with headphones on. The few who weren't talking or typing into their phones and were up for chatting were nice and personable. I told them I was a reporter for The Stranger. I learned to identify them as Amazon employees by the sky-blue Amazon ID cards bobbling on their waists. All of them told me they didn't want to be named.
One sales representative in a teal hoodie and a faux-hawk told me he likes his job as we walked past a Whole Foods and the yoga studio. He said he talks with customers all day long. So when Amazon's getting bad press, does that affect his job? "Of course," he explained, because customers talk about that stuff with him. Before he could elaborate, he had to go.
A short, wide-eyed man who said he was originally from India told me he'd moved to Seattle for a position at Amazon. He kept checking his watch while we talked. He also had to go before we could discuss how Amazon retaliates against book publishers that won't accept its e-book pricing models.
One of a scruffy pair of brogrammers told me as they rushed past, "I can't talk to you. Sorry, I can't help with you that."
A bespectacled accounting employee in a black sweatshirt printed with the Amazon logo actually stopped moving to talk to me. He explained: "The religion inside is serve the customers. I don't think that's so bad." He went on to say, "You might say I've drunk the Kool-Aid." I asked about the "tiff" between Amazon and book publisher Hachette, but he took offense at "the bias implicit" in my question. He has friends who tried to create children's books, he explained, but they'd been jerked around by agents and publishers. So he has little sympathy for the book industry, which had also complained back when Amazon "was the first one" to put negative reviews on product pages. With that, he smiled and said, "Good luck!"
I asked a software manager in a polo shirt who works on Amazon Payments about the dustup with Hachette. "I read about it in the news. But that's a different division. That's the books department, so I don't know what's going on."
"When there's any press, positive or negative, we pass it around," said a balding guy who works on the Amazon Marketplace, facilitating its partnerships with third-party vendors. "Because we want to reduce pain for the customer." I asked him about Hachette. "Oh yeah, I saw something online about that yesterday," he said. "But I didn't get a chance to read it." And then he had to go.
That was all I got after two hours of standing outside Amazon headquarters. Later, I found an Amazon employee on Facebook who was willing to talk to me if I didn't use his name. He called Amazon "a phenomenal company to work for." Asked about the company's fight with Hachette, he said, "In my mind, Amazon is pressuring the publisher so it can get lower prices... It's for the customer and not our bottom line. Amazon is notorious for cutting prices. We have only been able to reduce the cost of books and e-books by negotiating better deals with the publishers."
I mentioned that Walmart is notorious for having low prices, too, which is good for the company, but not so great for Walmart's workers. I added that I was at Amazon's shareholders' meeting downtown a few years ago when it had to be shamed into spending several million dollars to install air conditioners in its warehouses.
"Amazon is really frugal," the employee said. "I think the acquisition of Kiva, the robotics company, will improve conditions in the warehouses." Another example of frugality: Microsoft and Google "give a lot of free food. Whereas Amazon only supplies very poor coffee. We don't get very many perks."
Does he worry about a tendency toward monopolistic behavior?
"I don't think that's a concern. There's so much competition... For books, there's Apple and Barnes & Noble. For video, you have Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. For product, you have so many niche stores such as Zulily. For cloud computing, there's Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and more."
I mentioned that Barnes & Noble is having financial troubles and independent booksellers have long been dying out.
"That's true. There are startups that are entering the e-book market as well. One, I think, is called Oyster, where they offer e-books as a subscription service (sort of like Netflix). Amazon has created a great ecosystem around books. I do think that others can enter it. (Difficult, but possible.)"
I said that a lot of people worry that Amazon is depressing prices and monopolizing the e-book market, and once they've done that, they're going to jack up the prices on e-books. What did he think of that?
"I think that's a valid concern. Though I think Amazon is so customer-obsessed that I don't think the company would ever do that. It's not within the culture. I think there would have to be a very, very large shift in the company culture for Amazon to take advantage of its situation in that way. I do think it's a valid concern, though."
The Stranger called Amazon to get the official response to this "valid concern," but—surprise!—we've yet to hear back.