Jeff Bezos: Dud or Demigod?

Earlier this year, I stood in front of the Whole Foods bakery section contemplating which of several yummy whole grain seeded rolls to get. A man who was striking even with his pandemic mask had walked in behind me a few minutes before as I entered the store. I realized he was again behind me at the bakery when I heard him saying, “You’re super-cute”. It was not something you normally hear at the grocery store, and he followed it up by asking if I was married. I later laughed about it with a friend saying that if I’d been interested in finding a guy during a pandemic, even that Jeff Bezos could have arranged for me.

There’s no shortage of unsavories that come up in Bezos-related conversations. He’s been credited with perpetuating climate change, disrupting small businesses, destroying book stores, departments stores, and retail sales as we knew them. He’s been accused of running sweat shops, chilling whistleblowing, illegal union-busting, and more. I abhor all of those things. I literally work to prevent that sort of business conduct and the harm it does. And I don’t know which of the integrity-related accusations will prove true, which I find especially troubling.

Still, the companies and services Bezos founded, nurtured, and empowered have undeniably improved my life over the years. As Quartz put it, his legacy is “complicated”. But here’s what I think of when I see his name.

  • When my mom was sick and the pandemic prevented me from driving across several states to shop for her, I could order food, supplies, and comforts from Amazon. I ordered supplies for my home, too. No one else could get them there.
  • In a year when I had two kids still in diapers, I ordered nearly every Christmas gift for family and friends from Amazon as they slept, at all hours of the day and night. And I was happy with the selections. For a new mom, that was a big deal.
  • Zappos saved me from repeated trips to and from shoe stores with two disinterested little boys who would say anything fit just to go watch SpongeBob or hit Build-A-Bear. Let’s not minimize how much those saved hours matter when you’re working full time and trying to be a good parent.
  • The Washington Post kept me from losing my sanity many times, especially in recent years. Enough said on that.
  • Audible helps me get through books when I otherwise couldn’t, like when I’m walking the dog, getting exercise, or just don’t want to look at more words on pages or screens. Bringing books in a high-quality audible form at scale has made books accessible to many people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise experience them.
  • Alexa turns on my lights, helps me turn them off when I’ve forgotten, and serves up my shopping list while I’m at the grocery store. She even includes the items my sons add, like, “New brother” and “Every chocolate toaster strudel on the shelf”. So I get some good laughs in, as well.
  • Earlier this summer, as the DC-MD-VA area experienced its “rash” of mite bites following our summer of cicadas, used Cortisone-10 that Amazon delivered to my door in less than 24 hours. I had visited three pharmacies for ANY anti-itch or rash treatment. The shelves looked like the toilet paper shelves in March 2020. I got back in my car after pharmacy three and ordered it from my phone, there in the parking lot.

Given my gratitude for all Bezos’s companies have done for me over the years, I was dismayed by a recent email from Washingtonian with the subject, “Bye Bezos”. It was actually an advertisement from their ad partner, The Rounds, offering to keep my home stocked in a way that was “basically nothing like Amazon”. And they were right – it was nothing like Amazon. Curious, I went onto the site and clicked on a picture of a water bottle only to see that the description said it came in cans. Compass coffee was offered in small-sized containers leading to more than twice as many trips for the same volume I would get in one order on Amazon. Same with detergents and fabric softeners, which they offered in 3-pod packages. (That’s not a typo. Three pods.)

Their compelling feature – reusable packaging and the picking up of used packaging from me – sounded responsible. But I wondered how allowing them to transport my used packaging back to their site to recycle saved anything over me walking it to the curb for my own weekly recycle service, or just reusing it myself. Given all that, slams at Bezos and Amazon seemed cheap and ill-directed. I wondered who thought mud-slinging would be the most effective marketing strategy for the altruistic, sustainability-concerned crowd.

If I were writing a classic play, I wouldn’t suggest Bezos was a god. He definitely has feet of clay. But his beyond-mere-mortals track record of turning remotely-plausible visions into my everyday reality puts him close to demigod territory. I’m interested in watching what else he might do now that he’s stepped away from his CEO role. And I’m not quite ready to say, “Bye,” just yet.

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