Breaking up with Amazon…

I’ve always wanted to like Amazon. A million years ago they were a place where you could find all sorts of reading material that your small local bookshop didn’t carry or that they didn’t have much interest in getting for you. Time passes. Things evolve. Amazon is now all things to all people – literally where you can go to but everything including the kitchen sink, listen to streaming radio, or find a bit of in-house produced “prestige television.”

The more Amazon has grown, the larger their catalog of merchandise has become, the worse the overall experience of dealing with them is. Over the last 12 months I’ve received more damaged items and made more returns to them than I have in my entire time as an Amazon customer up to this point. It’s a pity, because Amazon is just so damned convenient. 

I won’t go so far as to say I’m parting company with Amazon – but I can go out of my way to make them a vendor of last resort. Even if that means a bit more inconvenience and expense for me, I’m just petty enough to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve cancelled my subscriptions and know that means spending extra time to find books coming from Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or searched out from individual used book shops. It means either shlepping out to the local Petco for dog and cat food or finding more consistent online sellers. It means getting use to paying for 2-day shipping in some cases. 

Sure Amazon’s customer service is always quick with a refund or offering up a replacement, but being johnny on the spot with those things shouldn’t be the norm. If they’re not interested in delivering a product not beat to shit or spewed open inside the carton during shipment, they’re not interested in hanging on to at least this one customer. Sure, losing a couple thousand dollars a year in revenue isn’t going to break Amazon, but it’s the one voice I know capitalism understands when echoed by enough mouths… and all because the world’s greatest retailer can’t be bothered by a bit of proper product packaging.

All things in Xs…

I’ve been uncharacteristically patient in waiting until reaching (just) my one year anniversary with the iPhone X. The phone is a workhorse that in truth is far more pocket computer/communications device than any average user could ever need. Workhorse though it is, my trusty X is no longer the flagship of Apple’s iPhone fleet.

With my eligibility for an upgrade confirmed, I’ll be off tomorrow to slip by my very favorite retailer and hand off my trusty phone for its slightly newer, sexier younger sibling. Apple was kind enough to email me a confirmation of the order which means it should be a fairly painless visit – well under 10 minutes awash in the great American retail habitat.

I’ll give the marketing and sales department great credit. The know their target audience and continue too come up with new and interesting ways to help us feed the madness. I mean if you can convince me that going to a mall on Saturday is worth doing you should consider a career selling ice in the arctic.

There are some things for which I am willing to gladly suffer the indignity of being inevitably surrounded by people. The Xs just happens to be one of those things. I’ll be very happy to bring her home tomorrow.

Just different…

I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of what could be called “local retail.” When I was a kid even our small town of a few hundred had what in generations past would have been called a dry good store. My home town wasn’t big enough to justify its own hardware store, but the next town of any size in either direction along the George’s Creek valley had one – Pritchard’s in Frostburg anchored the central stretch of Main Street, Ternent’s in Coney sat (where it still does business) at the center of town on Jackson Street. Ames provided a primitive “big box” style of retail while G.C. Murphy represented the last bastion of traditional American department stores. Murphy’s, though, was “in town” and usually involved a special trip. You didn’t end up there to pick something up on a whim.

There was a proper 1980’s mall, of course, decorated in shades of beige with it’s glass dome and sunken fountain centerpiece. It was anchored by JC Penny, The Bon Ton / Eyerly’s, K-mart, and Sears.

I’m taking this stroll down memory lane because of all these stores – many of them one-time giants of American retail, only a handful remain. Ternent’s lives still, I suspect as much due to the loyalty of the surrounding community (and inconvenience of making the 30 minute one-way drive to the next closest hardware store) as anything else. JC Penny creaks along providing the area with “something that isn’t Walmart. Now Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection. Its lone store back home isn’t on the closure list this time, but I don’t think anyone really expects it will last forever or even that it will last long. It’s only a matter of time before Sears too becomes part of consumer history.

Protected here by my walls of books and largely tucked away from people to the extent I can manage, it’s easy to dismiss just how much the world has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. A guy I use to work for was fond of saying that on average “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.” It’s a nice sound bite and maybe it’s even true. But I can tell you without a moment’s shame that the older I get the less interest I have in “different” overall. Slowly, the words “different” and “worse” feel like they’re becoming synonymous.

I know intellectually that bankruptcy delivers creative destruction to the marketplace, but I’d consider it an awfully big favor if we could somehow avoid sweeping away all vestiges of the world that was.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Shipping. If you’re selling a book as a “rare first edition” in “like new” shape, don’t be surprised if I call raising three kinds of hell when it arrives at my house with a shredded dust jacket and mangled pages. especially when the only shipping method you offer is “dumped in an unpadded plastic envelope, slap a shipping label on it, and hope for the best.” There are entirely too many options available to justify dealing with a company that clearly has no regard for their own product. 0/10. Would not recommend.

​2. ​Disagreement. There’s a trend that has always been built into the internet – stretching back into the dim mists of newgroups and chat rooms – that is constructed around the idea that if you don’t agree with every single point of my 12-point statement, you are a communist Nazi heathen enemy of humanity whose father smelt of elderberries and we can’t be friends. I suppose it’s fine if you feel that way, but I generally like my discussion and opinion to have a bit more nuance that’s more fitting in a world where virtually nothing is ever 100% one way or the other. Whether you agree with me or not, I’ll continue to state my opinions in what I hope are reasonable and constructive (and often sarcastic) ways. What I won’t do is feel any compulsion to defend my opinion from someone having a “come at me bro” moment. If I do engage in that discussion, I promise, it’s purely because of the entertainment value I’ll find in it.

3. The rules. In this place there are many rules. I did not write them. I am not making them up on the spot. The rules were here before I arrived and will be here long after I am gone. The fact that there is a rule (or rules) preventing you from doing that which you want to do is one of those facts that is interesting, but not particularly relevant. While I may share in your frustration, you’re really going to need to find someone with the authority to change the offending policy, regulation, or law before there’s a damned thing I can do about it.

Not in my backyard…

The local county zoning board is set to hear a request for a variance centered on our little corner of the Ceciltucky. This long stretch of the Elk Neck peninsula we call home ranges from protected wetlands, state park, state forest, conservation trust land, horse farms, and what in zoning parlance is “low density residential” housing. That LDR designation is what’s important here in that it’s what’s prevented all manner of undesirable development – things like condo blocks, giant houses on tiny lots, and, last year, a proposed “RV park” that got rolled back when property owners howled.

Now that county is considering what, at first blush, might seem to be a so what variance that would allow an additional 2500 square feet of space to be put under roof on that particular parcel of land that was once home to a now-defunct local convenience store. The wider issue, and there’s always a wider issue, is that the stated purpose of the variance is to allow Dollar General to develop the site as a commercial retail space squarely in the middle of what is almost exclusively a low density residential area. I say almost, because the Dollar General property is directly next to a small, locally owned convenience store where you can stop to get your lottery tickets, a fried egg sandwich, coffee, and as much of the local gossip as you can stand. This place is a community asset.

The request, of course, discusses all of the wonderful benefits of having a Dollar General come to “town.” As a consummate writer of bullshit memoranda, I can tell you whatever legal beagle put it together did a fine job off adding the bells and whistles to make an appealing case without saying much of anything at all.

I have great discomfort about telling a property owner what they can or can’t do with their property. That said, though, the owners purchased it knowing full well what was and wasn’t allowed based on the zoning in place when they purchased. I moved down to this quiet part of the county specifically because it was far away from the “retail opportunities” along major local highways. The last thing I want is to see some generic rubber dog shit selling baby big box store moving in just up the way. Based on the electrons I’m seeing being burned up online, the bulk of my neighbors agree. I guess all that’s left is seeing if we can pummel the county into submission one more time.

The virtue of Prime…

After getting my notice of another Amazon Prime subscription price increase, I’m realizing that I either need to start using it for more than watching 10 episodes of The Grand Tour a year or get rid of it. I signed up way back when Prime’s major benefit was two day shipping on books. Although it offers many more features now, I find I’m barely using it for any of them. With many of items I’ve bought from Amazon recently not making the 2-day shipping window and/or being damaged to some degree in packing or transit, it’s starting to feel like less of a bargain overall – especially when Amazon has opted to push it over the $100 price point.

I’m well aware that arguing over the value of $21 per year increase is patently ridiculous on its face, but there’s just something about that three-digit bill that really sets me wondering just what the hell I’m paying for and if it’s actually worth it. In all likelihood I’ll just go along letting apathy and inertia carry it along, but don’t let that in any way be confused with my willingness to bitch and complain every year when that $120 bill shows up in my list of financial transactions… because I still want my dented and damaged crap showing up in two (or three or four) days.

I supposed that’s what Amazon has been counting on all along.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Ice. I hate dumb stupid ice and the asshole who didn’t salt his driveway because “why bother, it’ll melt in a few days anyway. Occasionally I am a real idiot. Conveniently I was summarily punished for it so I feel balance has been restored.

2. Not doing the maths. I don’t even want to guess how many times I’ve watched someone walk to the checkout only to be rung up and announce in what appears to be complete surprise that “I don’t have that much.” Maybe some quick maths before getting to the counter would have been helpful. On any given day I’m keeping a reasonably accurate running total on two different checking accounts, three savings accounts, two brokerage accounts, one e-trade account, two IRAs, a “401(k)” type account, the Dow and S&P 500, and the spot price of gold, silver, and bitcoin. I won’t always know what those numbers are to the cent, but you can bloody well believe I’ll know if I have enough funds available to cover a cart full of whatever it is I’m trying to buy before I get to the point of sale. It isn’t about wealth or poverty. It’s about awareness and knowing the condition of all the resources you can bring to bear on the day. Situational awareness in all its many forms is your friend, kids.

3. Mr. coffee. My venerable 11 year old Mr. Coffee seems to be on his last legs. It’s mostly failing to drip through the last cup of water and when it does, it brings a quarter cup of grounds through to the carafe with it. No amount of scrubbing or spring adjustment seems to make a difference. I’m suspect of change at the very best of times… and changing something as central to my life as the coffee maker feels likely to set all my nerves twitching.