Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

Going Postal

(Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

The president is displeased with Amazon, which seems odd; it’s like reading “George H. W. Bush was spitting mad at Sears.” What’s the beef? Well, he says the Post Office made a bum deal with the retail giant, and according to a recent Washington Post story, he told U.S. postmaster general Megan Brennan to double their rates.

It’s true that the Postal Service lost money last year, but that was due to declines in first-class mail, as well as losses in its ambergris-lamp-oil and carrier-pigeon divisions. Package shipping increased, but the good news was overshadowed by the inexorable decline of mail. The postmaster general has told the prez that the deal is good, but Trump wants a task force to study the matter. He’ll probably get its recommendations in an email.

It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump is mad at Amazon because Jeff Bezos, its CEO, owns the Washington Post, which is mean. It’s entirely possible that the author of The Art of the Deal would be trumpeting Bezos’s arrangement with the USPS: smart!

Or the president’s latent antitrust animus has quickened. The problem for competitors has been “free shipping,” which is now so dangerous an anti-competitive strategy that it should be called “assault shipping.” Eventually all competition evaporates, at which point Bezos grows 15 feet tall, horns sprout from his head, his skin turns lurid red, and we realize we are in thrall to Baal or whatever underworld abominable was the patron devil of streamlined dog-food delivery.

I mention canine chow because it’s something that reveals the endless ways the market responds to consumer needs. I have a dog. He is a very good dog. He is also rapacious beyond measure, and when bored will walk to the closet where the food is kept and punch the door.

“But you just ate,” I say.

“And your point is?” his expression replies.

Let’s say he likes Ralina Superbites Grain-Free Lustre-Nuggets dusted with Free-Range-Chicken Spittle. Don’t knock it until you’ve had a bowl. With gravy? (Kisses tips of paws, French-chef-style.) There are several options.

1) Amazon. Price: $14.50. Free shipping! I can order it by voice, merely saying, “Alexa, order dog food,” whereupon the nice robot lady says, “Based on your order history, do you want Ralina Superbites Grain-Free Lustre-Nuggets dusted — ”

“Yes.” And then she says, “Okay,” and a box of dog food arrives in the driveway a day later, and then I back over it while leaving the house.

Downside: Besides backing over the box, there isn’t one. I can place a recurring order, so I never need to think about buying dog food again. Alas, the dog eats the stuff so fast I’m out a week before the shipment arrives, so I buy some at the store, and then the box arrives. I cancel delivery of the next box, never remember I canceled it, and run out. Modern life is an unending struggle.

2) The grocery store. $15.99 for a 15-pound bag of dog food. You may think, “Well, that’s a no-brainer,” but there’s probably some brain in that stuff. The fine print on all these bags probably says, “Ingredients: mechanically separated abattoir scraps.” Anyway: I don’t mind paying more, because the grocery store has a gas-discount program. You swipe your rewards card at the pump and get ten cents off each gallon! Or you would, if you hadn’t forgotten the card. Modern life is a ceaseless battle.

3) Big-box chain retailer. Price: $15.50. Free shipping — if you have their credit card. However! You get 10 percent off your total if you use the card. But! I don’t have the credit card. Nothing’s stopping me from getting one, except that the bank card I prefer gives me points, which can be used for air travel, which is like “free shipping” for one’s own self.

4) Online pet-food stores. Price: $15.99, and of course free shipping. I say “of course” because it’s de rigueur now. Amazon changed the game. You may ask: Does the pet-food store offer discounted petroleum or gratis transportation in a pressurized tube at 30,000 feet above the earth? Not yet. But they offer points of their own, which can defray the cost of mutt grub down the line.

Given all of these options, what do most people do? They think, “Huh, out of dog food. Better pick some up at the place that’s most convenient.”

It’s possible that Amazon will drive them all out of business when they offer Prime Drone Feeding — a small aerial vehicle hovers over your lawn and at predetermined intervals shoots kibble at your dog like tracer fire. Until then, it’s the usual routine. Amazon for this, the store for that, the store for the thing you got at Amazon because you’re here, and so on. We have free will, which does not wither to naught when Amazon wreaks its fearsome will. But if the president smacks Bezos’s company down, expect the retailer to shift to an army of independent contractors who whiz around town and drop off the small stuff the USPS handles now. You know who’ll be hurt by that?

The postman. It’s not that he gets paid more for delivering Amazon stuff, but nowadays 98.7 percent of mail is junk. His job is to trudge from house to house to jam circulars and fundraising letters into a mailbox the resident hasn’t cleared out in a week. At least when he delivered something from Amazon, he knew the people in the house wanted what he brought.

A man needs purpose in life. Ordering everything from Amazon is the least we can do.

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The Week

Barack Obama signed a contract with Netflix. Now he’ll be working for the media instead of the other way around.
Athwart

Going Postal

The president is displeased with Amazon, which seems odd; it’s like reading “George H. W. Bush was spitting mad at Sears.”

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