The Constant Consumer

Amazon’s mission is to make customer identity more primary than citizenship

Every day, the imperative to perceive oneself as a customer grows across a range of experiences and institutions: in the shopping centers and business improvement districts that have replaced public squares and parks; in the schools and hospitals, where offerings are tailored not to general social welfare but to individual consumer choice and what each can afford; and in the gym, where exercise, nutrition, and other forms of wellness have been redefined as personal lifestyle choices.

If the customer is always right, then you’re never wrong when you’re consuming. No contemporary company has offered that Faustian bargain more broadly and aggressively than Amazon. In a previous era, being at home meant you probably weren’t shopping. The mall was, as Ian Bogost noted in an essay for the Atlantic, where “consumerism roared and swelled but, inevitably, remained contained.” Freeing consumerism from that containment was one of the internet’s earliest applications, streamlining the process of shopping at home, and later, on phones.

Recent technologies have enabled the role of customer to be fused with the newer role of user, who inhabits an entire system rather than a specific transaction

Recent technologies have enabled the role of customer to be fused with the newer role of user, who inhabits an entire system rather than a specific transaction. Exploring that transition, writer Kevin Slavin describes how the experience of app-based food delivery narrows one’s perspective: “For users, this is what it means to be at the center: to be unaware of anything outside it.” Those apps’ minimal interfaces, requiring little more than the push of a button to order food, conceal the labor and logistical sophistication that make it possible. Users don’t need to understand the messy complexity that supports their simplified solipsism. In Slavin’s example, that insight wouldn’t help them order more food, so the user experience excludes it. 

Amazon similarly merges the customer and the user within its own optimized environments, letting these subjects exist at the center of an ever-expanding system. Imagine an avid Amazon customer’s typical day living with a near future iteration of the platform: He wakes up and speaks his first words of the morning to his Amazon Echo in the kitchen, asking Alexa to order toothpaste after noticing he was running low. Upon checking his email, he gives Alexa a few more instructions, adding social engagements and reminders to his calendar, checking the weather, and finally opening the garage door once he’s ready to leave for work. At the office throughout the day, idle shopping fills his distracted moments. He browses books, clothing, and even furniture, placing orders within seconds, many of which automatically appear in his shopping cart based on patterns from his activity history (he even knows that some of what he buys will be waiting at home tonight). During the evening commute another Alexa-enabled device in his car prompts him to send his sister a birthday card, an action he asks Alexa to do for him. He stops by Whole Foods to pick up groceries — as an Amazon Prime member, it’s always the most cost-effective option in his neighborhood. He arrives home to find a variety of Amazon packages stacked neatly on the living room coffee table, delivered throughout the day by part-time contractors who let themselves into the house via the smart lock on the front door. The soundtrack to his entire day is provided by Amazon Music, in which his Prime membership has automatically enrolled him for a small monthly fee. Few parts of this hypothetical day, which is already within the realm of possibility, remain untouched by Amazon’s user experience.

Amazon, as much as any single company, is transforming the environments in which we live and embedding itself within the fabric of daily existence. Beyond individual experience, those changes also manifest themselves in the physical environment. Many physical retail stores have been rendered obsolete as Amazon and other online retailers started undercutting them on price and offering a wider selection. (Bookstores experienced this first but it eventually spread to almost every form of retail.) Sidewalks and building lobbies have become staging areas for packages, with delivery vehicles exacerbating traffic and obstructing bike lanes as piles of brown Amazon boxes increasingly take up space. As Amazon and food delivery apps eliminate some of the most common reasons to leave one’s house one wonders what sort of neighborhood life will be sustainable in affluent urban areas. 

In light of Amazon’s all-encompassing ambitions, the strategy behind several of the company’s most important product initiatives — Alexa, Amazon Prime, physical retail stores (including Amazon Go and Whole Foods), and Amazon Key — becomes clearer. These products seek to redefine what being a customer means by immersing us more completely within the Amazon universe. Formerly, being a customer was a role one assumed upon physically entering a store or ordering something from a company. Amazon promises to create a newer type of environment, a hybrid of the digital and the physical, that lets us permanently inhabit that role: the world as Everything Store, which we’re always inside.

Amazon represents its efforts to erase the remaining bulwarks against consumerism as its “customer obsession.” Throughout Amazon’s existence, the company has claimed that traditional corporate priorities, from high-profile retail partnerships to short-term profitability to the company’s stock price, have always ranked below customer satisfaction. Early in the company’s history, CEO Jeff Bezos sometimes insisted on keeping one seat open at the conference room table during meetings “for the customer,” and he still scans customer feedback himself, escalating problems to relevant departments with emails that consist of a single question mark.

Part of being “right” was being offered choices to be right about

Bezos’s letter to Amazon’s shareholders on April 18, 2018, praised the company’s customers for being “divinely discontent,” unfailingly raising their expectations beyond whatever standard a company sets for them. In the letter, Bezos likens this force to nothing less than evolution — “We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied” — and goes on to describe the “customer empowerment phenomenon” that informs Amazon’s approach: Consumers’ access to product reviews, price comparisons, and shipping timelines has created a space where they and not retailers call the shots. To succeed in this landscape, Bezos suggests, companies must respond to their customers’ ever-increasing power by treating them like the linchpins that they are; whoever does this best will rightfully dominate its market.

Amazon’s obsession with customers appears to have endeared them, again and again, to a public that should know better: Earlier this year, Amazon announced that Prime memberships had surpassed 100 million globally, with more new members joining in 2017 than in any previous year. The company’s second-quarter sales in 2018 grew 39 percent versus the previous year. Many have started welcoming Amazon’s physical presence into their homes, with Alexa-enabled devices ranking among the company’s best-selling items. “Customer obsession” is a happier narrative for this dominance than one of aggressive market capture, anti-competitive tactics, and ruthless labor exploitation. Like “support the troops,” or “what about the children,” caring about the customer seems like an impregnable position to take. It’s a more specific iteration of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”: How could a consumer-focused company be evil, when we are all consumers? What could be wrong with the company being focused on our needs?

But that is the fundamental problem: Amazon’s constant praise of the customer implies we are all already customers and nothing more — that we should understand “consumer” as our core identity. The company’s endless praise for the consumer role is part of its intent to disarm us, to invite us to enter its universe of deals and recommendations and to internalize the status of permanent customer — and specifically, Amazon’s customer. Overall, Amazon’s most important product is how it creates and refines a world in which the Everything Store converges with just plain everything and, being ubiquitous, becomes invisible.

We dream of being creators, friends, neighbors, or citizens, but rarely of being customers. The customer role used to be temporary and specific — buying something from a seller — and not an aspirational identity. What happened?

In the 19th century, industrialization and mass production yielded an unprecedented flood of goods. Commerce was suddenly no longer constrained by supply but demand. Stimulating consumption became crucial; making customer a primary and perpetual identity was a key solution. To achieve this, retailers worked to make feelings of agency and significance available to people, but only on condition of being a customer. This approach is articulated by a slogan often attributed to department store magnate Henry Gordon Selfridge in 1909: “The customer is always right.”

If being a customer feels so great, as the past century has trained us, what happens when the consumer experience encompasses us so completely that we forget we’re customers at all?

Part of being “right” was being offered choices to be right about. Whereas Henry Ford once famously joked that customers could buy a car in any color they wanted, as long as it was black, such narrow standardization proved a less viable course as mass markets became saturated. Rather then sell products on their basic utility, advertising began to orient itself toward identity, selling the idea that individuals could reveal their unique selves through purchases. Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, pioneered this approach in the 1920s, purporting to link goods to individuals’ inner desires. By the logic of identity-driven advertising, wanting more things corresponded to greater personal depth. Being a customer gave one access to not only a cornucopia of goods but also the rich recesses of one’s psyche.

These processes have only become more sophisticated over the decades. At the individual level, unrestrained identification with the customer role has foreclosed other identities we might imagine for ourselves, such as political activism, resource stewardship, and community participation. David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), diagnoses a late 20th century shift toward “a market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism.” In this culture, at the structural level, businesses must cater to the customer identity to survive. In lieu of tolerating moderate inconvenience, higher prices, and some potentially awkward human interactions in order to support local businesses, the logic of efficient and limitless customer service offers fast food chains and big-box stores, which offer cheaper goods and routinized retail interactions. These, in turn, are now in the process of being supplanted by Amazon.

Consumerist approaches aren’t the best solutions to many problems, but at present they’re often the easiest to imagine and most realistic to implement, if only because they have the support of the corporate powers that benefit from them. The transition toward consumerism across so many domains exemplifies a phenomenon that writer Sarah Perry calls a tiling structure, a system that “tiles the world with copies of itself.” Tiling structures flourish because they solve certain problems well enough that they become more or less mandatory, and block alternate solutions. Perry cites billboards, strip malls, and big-box retail stores as particularly visible examples of tiling structures. By minimizing their costs relative to the revenue they generate while externalizing negative impacts such as poor pedestrian access and unpleasant aesthetics, they spread throughout suburbia in the 20th century, entrenching sprawl as the default format of American retail. Even identity-oriented marketing itself is a tiling structure: It has worked well enough for those with something to sell that it has gradually pervaded the commercial landscape, leaving its detrimental social and personal effects for someone else to fix.

Tiling structures have introduced customer-service logic to cultural spaces that were once sheltered from markets. Communities based on common interests, shared identity, or physical proximity, from neighborhoods to political groups to religious institutions, must now respond to their constituents’ increased mobility and access to information by treating them like the empowered customers that Bezos described to his shareholders — customers who will leave if they find something better elsewhere. Individualized, personal-identity-based appeals replace collective orientations. As a tiling structure, this shift occurs because it works for the group implementing it, not because it’s best for everyone.

The best example of this transition may be the neighborhood itself. Living in a city, for many, resembles a pure customer experience, in which buying or renting an apartment or home determines one’s relationship with a place more than membership in any kind of community. Residents commonly don’t know their neighbors and oppose local developments that serve a greater good at their own expense. Real estate agents even appeal to individual identity to brand various locations and increase their appeal. Higher education, similarly, has recategorized students as customers, emphasizing efficiency and consumer choice over education’s role as a socially useful endeavor to participate in.

Our lives are increasingly oriented toward a global system of consumerism mediated by massive, scale-seeking platforms rather than smaller, more localized groupings. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, published in 2000, documented declining participation in labor unions, fraternal organizations, and religious groups, partially attributing that decline to socially atomizing technologies like television and the internet (which was relatively young at the time) — both key facilitators of consumer culture. Many of the fading forms of social engagement Putnam describes have their own shortcomings, like restrictiveness and discrimination, but their benefits are undeniable, ranging from personal happiness to civic involvement.

As globalized platform consumerism erases more of what preceded it, replacing intricate social arrangements with individual links to large impersonal systems, it’s harder to remember what we’ve lost. Less and less equipped to imagine ourselves as anything but customers or users within those systems, we adopt the desires that companies like Amazon can best satisfy: convenience, choice, and frictionless consumption. These developments may be replacing another consumer system that wasn’t necessarily worth preserving itself, but beyond those visible changes, we face a new risk: becoming users offline, in the physical world. The more Amazon can control our experience of that environment, the less we’ll care what’s outside the system it creates.

Amazon’s true objective, it seems, is a full infiltration of the world rather than ongoing refinement of a walled garden confined to the internet. Instead of scaring its customers with its totalizing ambition, the company has successfully marketed this arrangement as  desirable. To permanent customers, further gains in convenience, choice, price, and delivery speed are pure benefits. If life is meant to be a series of consumer experiences, they might as well happen as seamlessly as possible.

Years ago, Amazon’s “1-click” purchasing option seemed to remove all remaining friction from online shopping, but there was still a long way to go. The company’s more recent initiatives respond to deeper psychological friction that might prevent us from purchasing a product using Amazon’s platform. In a reprise of what happened a century ago, manufacturing and distribution have again progressed to a point where the customer is the greatest constraint on commerce. A single-click purchase still requires opening Amazon’s website or app, but people spend plenty of time away from their device screens. The Amazon Echo and other Alexa-enabled devices, placed throughout our homes like furniture, connect more directly to our supposedly subconscious impulses by letting us simply speak our desires and translating those words into Amazon orders. We might change our minds by the time we get around to opening an app, after all.

Amazon Prime complements this arrangement, letting us become formal members of the Amazon ecosystem and feel like we’re always already inside the Everything Store. The company’s physical retail stores — Amazon Go, Amazon Books, and now Whole Foods — extend that territory to the urban space that Amazon had previously bypassed. And home technologies like Amazon Key reopen the home at the conclusion of the order, inviting the company’s delivery workers to let themselves in and drop off our merchandise.

Writer Matthew Stewart, describing the urbanist vision revealed through Amazon’s patent filings, characterized its strategy as “a colonization of everyday experience; a concerted effort to control an all encompassing infrastructure of home, office and retail automation, one in which the city becomes a giant fulfillment center, and humans mere inventory pickers.” More than removing friction from its user experience, Amazon wants to be our environment.

In realizing such a totalizing vision, Amazon faces an obstacle: If being a customer feels so great, as the past century has trained us, what happens when the consumer experience encompasses us so completely that we forget we’re customers at all? The minor friction of 1-click ordering pleasantly reminds us how easy it is to be one of Amazon’s empowered customers, the object of the company’s obsession. Will we remember that feeling if “smart” devices can effectively read our minds and our desires subtly manifest themselves in our homes?

This quandary returns us to the definition of user. A user isn’t just an evolved customer but a qualitative transformation of that role: one who occupies a system and creates value for the system’s owner by merely being there, just as Google and Facebook’s users generate valuable data by partaking of their services. Those platforms, for all their seeming omnipresence, haven’t figured out how to expand beyond their digital containers. This is Amazon’s ambitious vision: The world is its platform, and instead of being customers, we will just become users whether we are looking at screens or not.

Drew Austin writes about technology and urbanism on the blog Kneeling Bus.