Walmart and Amazon are both out to conquer the  U.S. retail world.  Walmart is already the largest business in America, while Amazon is often cited as the growing monster. I avoid shopping at Walmart, but I frequently buy from Amazon. And, more significantly for me, I make a good part of my living selling through Amazon. That’s an opportunity Walmart doesn’t offer.

If you haven’t seen the documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” perhaps you’ve caught one of the ads Walmart was blasting on TV during the recent Christmas shopping season. It ended with a woman sniffling as she said goodbye to all other stores. I found that a revealing clue about Walmart’s corporate attitude. In place after place across the U.S., Walmart has established its stores and then done its best to drive other retailers, from competing chains to mom and pop stores, out of business.

The “High Cost of Low Prices” documentary (not on sale at Walmart.com!) demonstrated the way the chain pursues greater sales through low price advertising, even to the extent of pressuring manufacturers to shift their production from the U.S. to China so that Walmart can sell their products for less. It has also encouraged reputable companies to produce lower quality goods to reduce their prices. Those that have refused have found that Walmart won’t offer their merchandise. Walmart is also often dishonest about claiming its prices are the lowest on everything it offers. They aren’t.

Shopping at Walmart has been far from a convenient experience the few times I’ve tried it. The stores are deliberately vast. Unless you’re familiar with the layout, finding almost anything can be a chore. And there are often long waiting lines at cash registers. It has been well documented that one way Walmart seeks to keep prices down is the way it treats its labor. Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S.. Its workers are poorly paid and otherwise mistreated, and managers are pressured to keep paid employee hours to a minimum.

Target, another chain which has demonstrated corporate citizen problems, has a sign in every store announcing the amount the store donates to local charities. I haven’t seen signs like those in Walmart.

By comparison, Amazon seems like a good corporate citizen Recently, when Michael Moore had a new book, “Here Comes Trouble,” published in time for the Christmas season, he asked people on his mailing list to buy copies from their local independent booksellers (the option I chose) or from independent booksellers in his home state of Michigan. He also pointed out that for those to whom the cost of books was a problem, the book was available at a huge discount through Amazon. He didn’t mention Walmart. (To be fair, Walmart does sell the book on-line at a sizeable discount. Amazon’s price is lower, though.)

I’m sure an exhaustive investigation of Amazon’s business practices would turn up some things I wouldn’t like. But it’s no Walmart.

Instead of seeking a Walmart-like monopoly on sales, Amazon offers its huge customer base to anyone willing to pay it a small commission on sales. Not only do I buy a lot of things through these “Associated Sellers,” I’m one of them. Since I had to close my own mail-order business (not due to competition from Amazon), I have been selling used CDs through Amazon. My competition there is from other independent sellers, which is fair enough. Amazon relays orders to me, takes a very reasonable 15% commission, and pays me promptly every ten days (more often if I request).

One used book dealer I know, after years of selling through his own website and a large specialist on-line book site (ABE), took the plunge into Amazon sales a couple of years ago. He told me the experience was like moving from a rural road to Times Square.

Buying from Amazon could hardly be easier. Its searches do have a tendency to overload the results with oddly irrelevant material, but I still nearly always find what I am looking for. I even discovered through Amazon a very reasonable supplier of vitamin and mineral supplements (Swanson), which has its own obviously large operation but also sells through Amazon.

My daughter Jaida, a published writer, likes to buy from the great independent bookseller Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. Powell’s is indeed a wonderful place. Unlike Jaida, I’ve actually been to the store, which occupies an entire city block and is so large it devotes one story to a parking lot. Powell’s website has a lot of interesting reading on it, including independently written reviews and contributions from an uncommonly intelligent array of customers. But Powell’s serves only itself.  Amazon enables me to sell.

Years ago I wrote many reviews of classical CDs for Amazon. That work dried up as Amazon began to solicit unpaid review of everything it sells from customers. These reviews have no quality control aside from other customers’ ratings of them , but I’ve still found some of them very useful sources of information. For example, the Mill Creek company offers large compilations of public domain video material (sometimes 50 or 100 movies in a box) at extremely low prices, but Amazon’s offerings of them don’t include contents listings. You can be certain that some customer will have listed all of the contents in a review.

A couple of years ago, in a moment of weakness, I joined Amazon Prime. That service, among other things, gives me free two-day shipping on all purchases. It costs me $70 a year, but I’ve found it still saves me money and I’ve renewed it. Now Amazon Prime subscribers are being offered free access to thousands of streaming movies and TV shows on line. I can’t wait to get my new Blu-ray player on line!

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