’Tis the season of shopping and one retailer, hailed as “the embodiment of the business of tomorrow” is cleaning up once again, with a little help from robot armies, recommendation algorithms and a sophisticated tax strategy.
That company is Amazon - a current boycott target for a group calling itself Amazon Anonymous - and the glowing description comes courtesy of Enda Kenny. Amazon, the Taoiseach said last month, is "a great success story" that has "transformed the sales business forever". (It was announcing 300 jobs at the time.)
Flash back to September and he could be heard lauding the "practical patriotism" of the Guaranteed Irish symbol at a celebration of its 30th anniversary.
The “patriotism” of buy-Irish, buy-local campaigns and the innovation of Amazon do not have to be mutually exclusive. You can, after all, buy Guaranteed Irish products through its platform. And like any pioneer, it has recruited shoppers not just to its own business but to the wider habit of online commerce. Irish retailers are free to invite themselves to the party it started, then fix their customers a drink.
But Kenny’s two outpourings of praise are not without contradiction. In fact, they encapsulate the conflicting messages that assail consumers at this time of year.
The news media is an equal opportunities hype-generator that both trips over itself with glee at the sight of in-store stampedes and camps out in e-commerce warehouses. On "Cyber Monday", ITV's Good Morning Britain even dispatched a reporter to the living room of a couple hunched over their laptop, poised to click. So this is not strictly a case of online versus offline. Rather it is about the big guys versus the little guys and the discrepancy between our immediate and future interests as consumers.
On the one hand, we are encouraged to snap up flash-sale “bargains” because if we don’t, we will miss out on that “deal” we didn’t know we wanted. This is the “you’re actually saving money by spending” marketing ploy, writ large.
On the other hand, we are urged to consider longer-term concerns, both our own and those of others.
If we don’t support local shops this Christmas, then those local shops might not be around next Christmas and everybody loses. Under this line of persuasion, discount-chasing on both giant e-commerce sites and in the biggest of the big retail chains is portrayed as harmful and unseemly. Amazon is a particular bête noire of the ethical shopper. It has bitter rows with suppliers, adeptly avoids tax and opens its platform up to dubious products (such as the vendors of a “Keep Calm and Rape a Lot” T-shirt ) that it later has to remove. An online search for “Amazon” and “working conditions” will uncover some unpleasant headlines, too.
If guilt-tripping others about their shopping choices is your thing, Amazon is all your Christmases come at once. But so far there is little evidence of any of the nastiness “sticking” to its brand. Last Friday, Amazon.co.uk enjoyed its busiest day on record, with its website recording orders for more than 5.5 million goods. Some 64 items were sold per second.
Its statistics are intimidating: Amazon is a beast that gives its customers what they want, when they want it, how they want it, at a time when Irish retailers have barely got the hang of click-and-collect.
But in truth, most people do not complete 100 per cent of their gift-buying via conscience-free, one-click ordering from overseas retailers, nor do they operate according to an unbending “Amazon is evil, I buy everything at craft fairs” principle. Their approach is much more pick-and-mix than purist.
Moral pressures are applied nonetheless. On “Cyber Monday”, Government Ministers implored consumers not just to buy Irish, but to “buy Irish online”. They did so in an economy where 60 per cent of annual digital spending by Irish consumers – an estimated €3.5 billion – goes abroad.
It’s a lot of money. But any strategy, political or business, that places the onus on consumers to help local retailers recover this “lost” revenue – regardless of the quality and price of the products or the convenience of service, but on the basis that it will be good for them and society in the long run – may hit a few snags.
This is the age of zero-hour contracts, fluctuating incomes and precarious employment. Many households manage their finances on a week-to-week basis, without savings or security. To be asked to weigh up something as abstract as the impact of each festive purchase on the economy is to be asked a lot.