Some months ago, I tried to stop using Amazon. How hard could it be, I asked myself, to shop elsewhere online?
To avoid watching films on its Amazon Prime Video service, to put down the Kindle e-reader – and slip the shackles of the company’s smug billionaire founder Jeff Bezos?
Within weeks, though, I caved – seduced by purchases that were either half the price of those in my local shops or not available at all.
Amazon’s ‘four-star store’ in Kent’s Bluewater shopping centre sells more than 2,000 of the most popular products from Amazon’s website in a shop the size of an Olympic swimming pool
For its sheer convenience and jaw-droppingly low prices, Amazon has brought much of the High Street to its knees.
Last week the tech giant opened its first physical non-food store outside the United States, in Kent’s Bluewater shopping centre – the location all-too symbolic alongside struggling stalwarts John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser.
The ‘four-star store’ sells more than 2,000 of the most popular products from Amazon’s website in a shop the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
And, in a further assault on the British retail landscape, it will use its carefully honed algorithms to study local shopping habits and create a tailored experience designed to trounce the competition.
Bosses are secretive about the four-star store expansion plans, but America now has more than 30.
British retailers will be quaking. Around 400,000 jobs in the industry have been lost since the outbreak of Covid, while some of the best-loved names in retail including Debenhams, Topshop and Monsoon were felled by the pandemic. Even John Lewis and M&S have been forced to shut stores.
It’s perhaps the final tragi-comic twist that Amazon – which has done so much to hammer their business models – is opening up in their former turf.
The new shop in Kent arrives after six ‘Fresh’ Amazon grocery shops have launched in Britain in the past year – all featuring futuristic ‘checkout-free’ technology. Just scan yourself in on your smartphone, pop the items in your basket and walk out: you’ll be charged automatically.
Fashion retailers are not safe on the High Street, either. Amazon has previously set up pop-up fashion stores in central London to ‘understand how Amazon fashion translates in physical retail’. Research indicates that Amazon will overtake Tesco as Britain’s biggest retailer by 2025.
The company is also at the heart of the nation’s takeaway addiction via its £620million stake in Deliveroo, and it has even opened a hair salon, pairing trendy haircuts with top-of-the-range straighteners, hair dryers and curlers, which customers can then buy to be delivered to their home.
The tentacles have also reached well beyond retail, creeping onto our TV screens.
Last month the UK was gripped by Emma Raducanu’s triumphant victory at the US Open tennis – a final that, until Channel 4 bought it at the last minute, was going to be available only on the streaming service Amazon Prime Video.
The same service is now a dominant force in film and television (including originals such as Clarkson’s Farm).
Amazon boss Jeff Bezos (pictured) started the $1 trillion internet titan just two decades ago from his garage in Seattle
And for those who happen not to be a fan of music, film, television, live sport, restaurant food, grocery delivery or haircuts, every taxpaying Briton is paying into Amazon’s coffers, as HM Government is a major customer of Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing division.
There are even rumours that Amazon could before long deliver NHS prescriptions in the UK, as it does in the US.
In short, almost no one escapes this $1 trillion company started just two decades ago from Bezos’s garage in Seattle.
UK customers here now spend an astonishing £83billion per year on the site, which employs 1.3million staff – around the same number as the NHS itself.
Many will argue this is all air game from a tirelessly enterprising company that has made shopping quicker and easier for millions.
And few can doubt the benefits of Amazon’s £32billion of investment into the UK since 2010, or the 55,000 jobs it has created here, many in poorer regions.
Where Amazon has led, other big chains have been forced to follow, ramping up their online delivery provisions in a virtuous circle of competition.
But the Amazonisation of the British Isles has not come without cost. The company’s business practices have long raised troubling questions about to whom, if anyone, it is accountable.
Last year it paid less than £500million of ‘direct’ taxes on more than £20billion of UK sales. Critics labelled sections of its accounting statements the ‘opposite of meaningful transparency’.
Tax experts fear the US giant will not even be captured by the new rules agreed by the G20 group of nations earlier this year to force companies like Amazon to pay their fair share.
The way Amazon has expanded has also come under the microscope, with London councillors calling its planning applications for new Fresh stores ‘underhand’ and ‘opaque’.
One was filed under ‘British Overseas Bank Nominees Ltd M&G Property’, rather than Amazon, while another was said to have been filed by a local solicitors’ firm.
The move could be an attempt to keep jealous competitors at bay, or avoid the anger of local business people and residents – but it is not a tactic one would normally expect from such a large business.
Its ambition and ability to ‘disrupt’ so many industries must be applauded. But as it grows to become one of Britain’s most important companies, pushing much-loved firms aside, it must take responsibility for its business practices and its role as a major employer.
Two decades after it arrived in the UK, it still has many questions to answer. But will the customers trooping into Bluewater want to ask them?
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