Gargantuan retailer Wal-Mart is being pursued by the carnivorous Amazon juggernaut in a battle for the ages…that seems almost predestined and boring. It’s a bit like a brutal mammoth being devoured by a slightly less suspicious-looking but much sneakier second mammoth. Per CNBC, “Amazon’s next foray into physical retail threatens to hit Wal-Mart where it hurts.” Where could this be? The cliché-ridden form of that sentence is sparse with informational nutrition, but the business site doesn’t keep us waiting for long: “The online seller said Tuesday that it’s testing a service for Prime members that provides free pickup of fresh grocery items in as quickly as 15 minutes. Subscribers can also schedule pick up within a one- or two-hour window.”
Currently, the service is being tested in (where else?) “two Seattle neighborhoods,” yet it’s still described as “a direct challenge to Wal-Mart’s grocery pickup service” by CNBC.
Right. Here’s what has actually happened: anybody who is not catatonic knows that Amazon is verily a monster of the New Economy, and filled to bursting with secret cabalistic plans of shipping all atoms of matter to all other atoms of matter across the whole surface of your favorite spherical ovoid, the Planet Earth—soon to be re-branded as trendy, web-savvy Planet Amazon. This goal puts them in the league of other ecumenical, world-girdling, universal human projects, like the Holy Roman Catholic Church, Islam, and the Muppet brand. Amazon’s game has always been this: break into every market. Every market.
Once it was made clear that the economies of Earth’s nation-states could support a rapacious, price-cutting organism—once Amazon got There First and became the company of choice for practically everything that could be sold, moved, or processed—this was always going to be founder Jeff Bezos’ goal, the Khan-like conquest of that older, quaint customer base, the human populace of Earth. A series of warehouses, the people who govern supply chains, and drones to ship. That is all Amazon requires to live. It is unkillable.
Contrast that to Wal-Mart, who has stomped all over small sellers in countless rural districts and warped the life of country towns and village people throughout America. The Children of Walton still require stores, segmented audiences, operations, the works. They can cut, and cut, and cut—and they have. They can beat down the unions, and lean upon police departments to be their security. Wal-Mart can even count upon the taxpayer to subsidize their employee base with the social security net, since Wal-Mart doesn’t pay them decently. What Wal-Mart cannot do is live on the air, as Amazon seems to do. And they know it. The eventual, probable doom of Wal-Mart, or at bare minimum their eclipse, is the shadow behind every hot news flash that CNBC or related parties might run. Any story that contains the words “Amazon” and “Wal-Mart” has the Eclipse as backdrop. It is all prologue to retail of the future.
When CNBC does a story of this kind—reports about a service that everyone with rudimentary literacy knew was coming, and moreover, reports about a service that does not actually exist yet—what does it really mean? Like any other media company, CNBC lives and dies by the sign of the eternal buzz, and is eager to get there, or perhaps just to fill space. Amazon hires professionals to conduct press interactions, as is the courtly custom of our age. These professionals, as you might imagine, are paid amplitudes of lucre to know, ferret out, and divine just what the press finds interesting. Speaking as a member of the media, the press finds everything fascinating—that’s our job, and our chief personality characteristic. The business press is uniquely situated to be exploited in this manner, since the business press is tied into what the reigning sovereign of our age, The Market, does. If the business press, as one voice, speaks with a universal thunder, then everyone else gets excited. People begin to invest, the market inflates, stocks rise, and women and men sitting in offices make billions of dollars. Or vice versa, if the news is bad. You see why the Buzz is crucial.
I should point out that this pipeline of news-to-money is not in the least conspiratorial. It’s just the way the financial world and the press and major corporations operate. So when CNBC does a story like this, it’s really a story about position and jockeying, because literally everything Amazon does will threaten Wal-Mart in some way, even if it’s an innocuous try-out. One of the best comedies of the Nineties, Drop Dead Gorgeous, was about the Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant, held in a small Minnesota town. At the climax of the film, one of the characters’ moms admits in towering rage she killed off all real and prospective challengers to her daughter: the thought of them even mounting a threat kept her up nights. And so it is for Wal-Mart. They see dangers everywhere, and they’re right to.
Wal-Mart knows this. Wal-Mart knows Amazon knows this. Amazon knows Wal-Mart knows this. They all know each other knowing it; it’s a regular kumbaya circle of mercantile paranoia. In this light, Amazon’s announcing of the grocery service doesn’t just goose Wal-Mart, or give Amazon good press (which they need after that big brouhaha about a hostile work environment last year). It encourages attention, and even more money, and finally, it brings in the sweetest plum of all: customers who are very into foods being delivered to their house. All strings of bait lead to the biggest fish of all: us.
The grocery business is $800 billion, and as good as Amazon’s record has been on delivering books and craft katanas and fertility tests and God knows what else human beings want and need and crave, there is always new ground to cover, until there is Ecclesiastically nothing new under the sun for Jeff Bezos to deliver. For while people like the new hotness and delivering things to your door without muss or fuss, there is always the chance that people will realize that for all the convenience of the long tail and the potential to get rare items, Amazon has the honest-to-God real chance of impoverishing their local bookstore and grocer and hardware store on a level beyond what Wal-Mart’s most baroque fantasies of plunder. Yes, the grocery business is a swell business; but Amazon right now is in the buzz industry, like CNBC. Which is why we can read, today, about a grocery service in two neighborhoods in the city of Seattle. What they’re selling isn’t food—that’s what Kroger does. It’s the promise of more food—specifically of the other guy never having enough for you, or soon enough, or at the right price. This story isn’t about selling food. It’s about selling the consumer to the New Economy, and everyone is buying.