Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Amazon: Supporting Ben Franklin's legacy by making one of two certainties more certain

To paraphrase England's greatest prime minister, commercial partners, like nations, have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

It used to be the case that Amazon was a fairly reliable partner in helping consumers find the lowest cost purveyors of particular products. Of course, it was only limited to those in their network of people selling through them, but this tended to be pretty liquid. For most products I searched for, there would be a sufficient range of sellers that you'd get decent price competition. This is made easier by the fact that once you're comparing literally the same product, it's basically a commodity market - there's some sorting on reliability of shipping and returns policy, but that's about it.

Amazon always privileged themselves slightly by defaulting to selling the item themselves if they stocked it. But it was simple to click on the tab for 'new' and find a range of sellers sorted by the total cost of the item plus shipping, which was what you paid. Problem solved - buy from the cheapest guy, the end.

In other words, as long as you clicked on the tab, Amazon would make it easy to tell if they were the cheapest provider of the goods or not, and the sorting process made it clear how you could purchase the lowest cost item, even if wasn't from them. Amazon were willing to take the hit to some direct sales (though they got some back in fees from the marketplace seller) for the repeat business that came from running a good price comparison service. 

But starting about a year ago, the interests of consumers and Amazon started to diverge. The reason is that for residents of various states (now up to 12) Amazon has to collect sales tax on their purchases. The citizen was always obliged to pay the tax, at least nominally, but in the past Amazon wasn't involved in collecting it. Collection was meant to occur because citizens would voluntarily report the sale tax on their internet purchases to the state (Ha ha! Stop it, you're killing me!). In practice, this made the Greek Tax office look like a model of perfect enforcement.

The loophole, which doesn't get greatly discussed, is that while Amazon is now forced to collect sales tax for its own providers, and for providers in the same state as the purchaser, it isn't compelled to (and in practice, doesn't) collect sales tax for third party sellers outside the state of the purchaser.

So what would a permanent ally do? 

Simple - he'd now sort purchases on total purchase price of Price + Shipping + Tax. That's the end cost to the consumer, let them find the lowest cost item.

But this was apparently a bridge too far for Amazon. This would put their own offerings at a structural disadvantage, and a decent one at that. In California, for instance, the minimum sales tax at the moment is 7.5%. This article claims that Amazon's after-tax profit margin, for comparison, is 1%. Can you see why playing at a 7.5% disadvantage is a game they're incredibly reluctant to play? 

And so we witnessed the internet commerce equivalent of the Suez Canal Crisis between erstwhile allies. Amazon felt that listing the total price would hurt them so much that they were willing to significantly degrade the usefulness of the price comparison function of their website. So they continue to only list cost in terms of Price + Shipping.

It gives me the absolute $#!7s that I can't sort on total cost any more. The only way to find out is to click through various sellers, add them to the cart, see if tax is added on, remove the item if it is, go back, find another seller, and then compare the tax with the difference in price. 

For small items, I won't always bother. But I will always resent the fact that Amazon is deliberately making my life harder for their own purposes. 

To give them credit, Amazon fought damn hard for a long time to prevent the states from forcing them to pay, but in the end, they saw the writing on the wall. Tax was going to get collected eventually, because the bankrupt states saw them as a cash cow waiting to be milked. Maybe I should cut them some slack.

Or maybe not. There are, after all, no permanent allies in commercial transactions. They happily screwed us when it suited them, so I have no compunction in reducing my business to them in response.

I don't know if it's possible, but if someone figures out how to scrape amazon prices for the lowest total cost, I'll direct all my purchases through them.

The only thing that would be even better would be to be able to scale the weight placed on taxes by a fixed amount. I'd probably set it at about 1.1 for small purchases. In other words, I'd rather pay slightly more money just for the pleasure of depriving the State of California of additional revenue.

That's not going to happen, of course, because Amazon makes it hard to just scrape all their data. So in reality, we consumers just have to bend over and take it.

Marketers love to tell you that the customer is always right, but it's not true.

It sucks to spend so long thinking that your purchasing dollars made you Dwight Eisenhower, only to find out that you were actually Anthony Eden all along and didn't know it.

No comments:

Post a Comment