Can Amazon Conquer the World?

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Amazon is the opposite of our romantic imagination of Italian villages lined with bakeries and old cobbler shops. But the pandemic persuaded Italians to overcome their reluctance to online shopping — and Amazon.

Adam Satariano, who writes about European technology for The New York Times, talked to me about his article on why Amazon’s playbook started to work in Italy, and if the country is a template for other parts of the world where Amazon hasn’t caught on.

There are underlying questions in Adam’s article: Will Amazon become something the world doesn’t really have: a dominant, globally popular store? And what might we gain and lose from that?

Shira: Why wasn’t Amazon that popular in Italy before now?

Adam: Online shopping has never been as common there as it is in the United States or elsewhere in Europe. Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and people tend to prefer shopping in stores and paying in cash. Roads in many parts of the country, especially in the less affluent south, are pretty bad.

The pandemic changed habits. One survey found that two million Italians tried e-commerce for the first time from January to May. Amazon was ready for this moment. So was Esselunga, an Italian grocery company that has done well with food delivery.

How did Amazon get ready?

The company was patient. Since it started in Italy in 2010, it slowly built warehouses and a distribution network, and convinced merchants to sell their products online. For local appeal, Amazon sponsors events like a Christmas festival in remote villages to show that the company can reach everywhere. Amazon also let Italians earmark a percentage of their purchases for local schools.

How do Italians feel about Amazon?

There’s tension between tradition and change. There’s concern about what a shift to online shopping means for the economy and culture in a country where small and midsize businesses are a large part of the economy. In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, there are strikes and organized efforts to get better pay, benefits and working conditions.

But people are also excited about job opportunities in a country with a sluggish economy even before the pandemic. Our colleague Emma Bubola spoke with a mother and daughter who peppered her with questions about whether Amazon would be hiring in the area. The 23-year-old daughter had been looking for a full-time job for years.

The significant majority of Amazon’s sales are in four countries: the United States, Germany, Britain and Japan. Is this when Amazon becomes a true global store?

Maybe. India has been a mixed bag for Amazon. Brazil has been challenging, although it looks like the pandemic boosted sales there. Amazon is targeting Europe for a lot of growth. There are two ways to look at it. Either Amazon has plenty of room to grow globally, or it’s going to be tough to make it in many parts of the world.

How have your family’s shopping habits in Britain changed in the pandemic? Will new habits stick?

I’m definitely shopping more online. We were buying most of our groceries online for a long stretch, but we’ve shifted back a bit to the store, at least before this latest surge in coronavirus infections in Britain. Both my sons need new shoes, which we’ll probably buy online. Like everybody, I like the convenience. I’m also nervous about what this means for our communities.

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If you, like those Italians, are buying more on Amazon these days, The Times’s personal technology writer, Brian X. Chen, has tips to become a savvier shopper:

On Amazon, the simplest place to find discounted goods is the Today’s Deals section, which lists products that are on sale for a limited time. But in my experience, the vast majority of items in this section are junk. Rarely will you actually see a quality product that you actually want.

There are better ways to score deals on good stuff:

  • If there’s something you want that is outside of your budget, you could set a price tracker. The web tool Camel Camel Camel lets you view the price history of a product listed on Amazon, and you can also sign up to get email notifications when the price drops.

  • You could peruse the deals section for Wirecutter, our sister publication that tests products. The site’s staff regularly sifts through deals for products, many of which are listed on Amazon, to highlight the best bargains. (If Wirecutter readers purchase products as a result of writers’ independent reporting and recommendations, the site often earns commissions from the retailer selling that product.)

  • You could also consider buying used. Often, an Amazon listing shows an option to buy the product used. Items marked in “like-new” condition are usually in pristine condition with packaging that had been opened and returned by customers. Buying used can save you money, and it gets more from the energy, materials and human labor that went into creating that product.

  • Uber got some good news: A judge restored Uber’s transportation license in London, where the company’s status had been up in the air because regulators said it had let unauthorized drivers give many rides. London is one of Uber’s most important markets, Adam Satariano writes, but the company still faces legal and other challenges to its business — notably in California.

  • A unified front against election misinformation: The editorial board of The Times called on social media companies to create a clear, public and unified rule book against disinformation or misinformation that might come from powerful people if the results of the U.S. presidential election take days or longer to sort out. Internet companies have been adding fact-checking notices to misleading posts by President Trump and other influential people, but the editorial said that didn’t go far enough.

  • You will not read a wilder crime story (and this one is true): My colleague David Streitfeld has the full tale of former eBay security officials — two of whom told employees to call them Mom and Dad — going to deranged lengths to stalk an anonymous company critic on Twitter and a suburban couple who ran an e-commerce blog. I want someone to explain to me why the chief executive officer and other executives at a giant company were so paranoid about comically obscure people.

Have you ever seen a turtle eating a fish popsicle? (This YouTube channel of a guy feeding fish and turtles was recommended in The Times’s At Home newsletter.)

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