By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
This week’s media spotlight is on Amazon. Its Go store, in downtown Seattle, needs no cashiers. You check your smartphone through the store’s entrance with an app, and you can buy groceries.
I am not surprised that technology has brought us to this stage. But the advancement of technology has its price on humankind. There’s no question that Go is convenient for busy people. Yet, my first reaction was “alarm” and “sighs.”
It’s clear that Amazon wants it all. It’s not enough that it is successful in book sales and other merchandise, which are necessary in our daily lives. Amazon aims at conquering the world. It doesn’t matter that it has killed many local bookstores and mom-and-pop businesses.
In the name of innovation and market share, Amazon pushes hard in the grocery business with its delivery service. When Uwajimaya teamed up with Amazon, providing its groceries for delivery service, it was well received. But not for long. Soon, Amazon bought Whole Foods and now it has opened Go, revealing its ambitious course, taking over the grocery business.
How much will it hurt Asian grocery stores? Historically, the Asian community has invested heavily in the grocery and restaurant businesses for important reasons. Because of discrimination, Asian Americans couldn’t get well-paid jobs. When they get work, they don’t get the promotions they deserve. So many end up starting their own businesses, first, as a mode of survival. Secondly, it serves as a ladder for economic prosperity and perhaps upward mobility.
Over the past 150 years, Asian grocery stores have raised multiple generations, providing thousands of jobs and livelihoods. Ask around and you’ll discover many Asian families and their ancestors are and were owners and partners of supermarkets. Asian restaurants and grocery store businesses are interrelated. Many Asian restaurants rely on Asian grocery stores for their supplies. If the Asian supermarkets are not doing well, they simply cut certain supplies, and it will affect the restaurant business, especially in the International District (ID). With Amazon Go, it will especially impact major Asian stores. Only the smaller niche stores can survive by selling specialty items, and having early and late hours.
Years ago, my relatives would give me Chinese groceries especially Lunar New Year merchandise whenever I visited Hong Kong, for fear that it wouldn’t be available in America. “Stop,” I told my relatives, “You be surprised … the Asian grocery stores have everything you guys have.” My tip for Asian stores, your niche is going to help you survive.
While you and I may not see opportunities, Amazon sees its 50,000 employees in Seattle and in other cities as gold. If they can make money from their employees, why not? Never mind that it’s going to wipe out other competitors if their employees shop exclusively at their own stores, and dine at Amazon-owned properties around South Lake Union. Does it occur to Amazon that sometimes, it needs to leave some room for other businesses to benefit from its growth besides creating jobs? Let Seattleites and small businesses share a piece of the pie, a win-win for everyone. Let us be joyous with the presence of Amazon in our neighborhood, and not worry or fear that it is going to wipe us out one day.
My editor has a different view. She thinks we shouldn’t be concerned at all. “The pie is infinite and expands to meet everyone’s needs. There is plenty for everybody.”
Assuming the pie is big enough for everyone, competition will be keen. Eventually, consumers win. So will Amazon.
My son reminded me that by criticizing Amazon in this article, it will only hand the e-commerce giant more publicity. Research has found that any publicity, even negative, is better than none at all. Being in the news business, I am aware of that. I just need to voice my disapproval.
Anytime I visit a supermarket, I like interacting with the cashiers. It’s rarely a long conversation, especially when the store has lines. Mostly, it is a quick nod and “hi.” But the smile of many cashiers is part of the reason I enjoy walking to Uwajimaya and other ID stores. It’s part of my daily routine and exercise. Many already know me and often remind me what’s on sale.
Five years ago, I used to dash in and out of grocery stores. I carried with me a piece of paper, knowing what to pick up. The time I saved, gave me more time to work. Then, I realized, “What’s the hurry?” I was not living in the moment. Gradually, I changed my habit. These days, I take the time to browse and shop for my dinner every night. It’s my time to break away from work and I focus on the moment of learning about new products — and how they can improve my health.
For several years, I was buying the wrong kind of seaweed, my daily snack. It never occurred to me to read the label. As long as it was crispy, it satisfied me. One day, an Uwajimaya staff member, who happened to be at the seaweed section, advised me, “Get the one with less salt.” I didn’t realize the difference in the salt content can be as much as 60 percent.
Another time, I was complaining to a grocery store clerk that the Grade A large eggs were just normal sized, not large. For some reason, Grade A large eggs have shrunk to Grade AA size of what they were in 2016. Is there something wrong with the chickens? Still, the grocery stores charge just as much for the smaller eggs. The clerk opened each box of different brands to check the size and agreed with me. Then, she found a box of large sized eggs and handed them to me. Incredible service!
I know many young people would enjoy shopping at Go, not just for the convenience, but because they don’t have to deal with people. This is a disadvantage in life. Automation is one of the reasons why young people have trouble in relating to other people. A study has found that 60 percent of our youth have awkward social skills.
Am I ungrateful?
I have been an Amazon customer for a while. My son has an Amazon Prime account and he orders things for me which I can’t buy from nearby retail stores. My principle is to spread the wealth. Make sure you support your neighborhood stores. Don’t just look at the price. I choose stores like Costco and Target too.
Amazon has been good to the Asian Weekly. It has knocked on our doors, and purchased many big advertisements last year for recruitment. For that, I am grateful. Some might say that I should not complain. I don’t think it would be healthy for Seattle if I shut my mouth. I presume Amazon desires to have honest feedback and exchange of ideas since it is in the news business, too.
Amazon bought the Washington Post in 2013.
Or Amazon would argue, if they don’t do it, someone else will. It’s a valid argument. We can’t stop progress, can we? It’s coming whether we like it or not. So we should accept a dog eat dog world, is that it?
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.