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Amazon Prime Day success: Do boycotts of tech companies work, or does convenience win out?

Amazon's big sales event, Prime Day, was filled with workers protesting wages, working conditions and climate change. Although there were calls to boycott the company on Prime Day, early predictions show record-breaking sales.

SALT LAKE CITY — Amazon’s summer consumer bonanza was not simply two days of “deals, deals, deals!” this year. With the company’s workers striking across the U.S. and the world, Amazon Prime members looking to score the wireless headphones of their dreams were asked by fellow shoppers to forgo big savings and stand in solidarity with the workers who rush to fulfill the orders. Workers in Minnesota protested labor conditions, the company’s climate policy and wages by striking, according to CNBC.

“Prime Day might offer unparalleled deals, but ultra-convenient online discounts carry a real-life cost for labor and communities. And workers around the world are fighting to stop Amazon from treating them like they are just as disposable as the boxes they fill,” Michelle Chen, a contributing writer, wrote in NBC News.

But despite the calls by labor unions and activists for boycott, Amazon stated in a press release that “Prime Day 2019 surpassed Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.” The company reported over 175 million items purchased, with record sales of Amazon devices.

The success of Prime Day raises questions about whether boycotts of tech companies — one of few tools available to activists in a climate of lax regulation — can have meaningful impact, or whether consumers are more interested in deals than activism. Was the Prime Day boycott thwarted by the power of convenience and lure of big savings (Amazon claims one billion dollars total)?

When Uber drivers went on strike in May, on the day prior to the company’s IPO, the strike was deemed a success by some like Veena Dubal, a law professor who wrote in the Verge, “I appreciate — almost viscerally — that Wednesday’s strike was a huge, unprecedented victory for service workers in the on-demand platform economy.” However, Dubal also pointed out that the demands of the protestors were not met.

Workers, supporters and activists picket outside the Amazon fulfillment Center in Shakopee, Minn. on the afternoon of Prime Day, Monday, July 15, 2019. Trucks were allowed through the picket line after a brief delay. A call for a boycott on Amazon Prime D
Workers, supporters and activists picket outside the Amazon fulfillment Center in Shakopee, Minn. on the afternoon of Prime Day, Monday, July 15, 2019. Trucks were allowed through the picket line after a brief delay. A call for a boycott on Amazon Prime Day in 2019 did not lower the company's sales, according to early reports.
Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

The New York Times reported that “The strikes were largely muted.” Uber drivers still showed up at the airport that morning to pick up passengers and “the flow of for-hire cars was typical for the time of day.”

Their initial public offering was “one of the worst debuts for a big U.S. listing,” according to the Financial Times, but that was due to Uber’s continued losses and fear of investing in an “untested” market — not necessarily to the strikes.

2018 was a big year for strikes, with more labor stoppages in over a decade and more participants since 1986, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Time reporter Abigail Abrams pointed to teachers and those involved in the medical industry as a major driver for the huge uptick.

In terms of outcomes, the strikes organized by teachers were most successful. In West Virginia, after striking for almost two weeks, teachers garnered a 5% pay raise, according to The Washington Post.

But teachers and tech workers have different battles. While both must work to convince the public to support their cause, holding tech companies accountable may be trickier. When it comes to regulation, many have pointed out that lawmakers struggle to understand the way tech companies work. This was made painfully obvious when Facebook CEO testified before Congress in 2018. “On the whole, senators didn’t grapple with the cultural and political implications of Facebook so much as with the basic mechanics by which it operates,” Elaina Plott, a staff writer for The Atlantic, wrote in the publication.

Which leaves activists to appeal to the power of the pocketbook, and the success of Prime Day illustrates the difficulty of even this strategy. Maybe it’s Amazon’s success at creating cheap products and a frictionless shopping experience that makes it difficult for consumers to boycott. Shep Hyken, author of “The Convenience Revolution,” described Amazon as the most convenient store on the planet in an article for Forbes. He explained, “Doing business with Amazon is just easier,” and that was the priority from the moment of the company’s inception.

As the Verge explained, “Amazon has built an empire out of making these basic purchases as easy and cheap as possible, with each convenience digging you deeper into the company’s ecosystem.”

In this Oct. 18, 2010, file photo, an Amazon.com package awaits delivery from UPS in Palo Alto, Calif. Amazon, which hooked shoppers on getting just about anything delivered in two days, announced Thursday, April 25, 2019, that it will soon promise one-da
In this Oct. 18, 2010, file photo, an Amazon.com package awaits delivery from UPS in Palo Alto, Calif. Amazon, which hooked shoppers on getting just about anything delivered in two days, announced Thursday, April 25, 2019, that it will soon promise one-day delivery for its Prime members on most items. A 2019 call for a boycott on Amazon Prime Day did not lower the company's sales.
Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

When white collar workers at Amazon wrote a letter to founder Jeff Bezos, published in Gizmodo, almost a year ago demanding that they stop selling facial recognition technology to police departments and government agencies, nothing changed. Amazon has yet to acquiesce to the demands, according to the Seattle Times, and additional protests over ties to ICE occurred on Monday.

“Very few boycotts have led to changes,” Maurice Schweitzer a Wharton School professor told The Los Angeles Times. However, Schweitzer also pointed out that the goal is usually more focused on exposure and gaining media attention. By that metric, with many major publications reporting on the strikes and planned boycotts, the movement could be deemed a success.

In response, an Amazon spokesperson wrote in an email, “It was obvious to the 1500-full-time workforce that an outside organization used Prime Day to raise its own visibility, conjured misinformation and a few associate voices to work in their favor, and relied on political rhetoric to fuel media attention." The statement continued, "Amazon provides a safe, quality work environment."

Although the Amazon Prime Day boycott, like so many boycotts, may not have hurt the company’s bottom line, if the greater public sustains interest in the issues of working conditions and wages, there may be a possibility of long term change. As Americus Reed, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, concluded in The New York Times, “If the boycott reflects a movement — rather than a moment — it can change the world around it.”