The Industry

Why Is It So Hard to Quit Amazon? Because Shopping Is Labor.

Prime has helped overworked and underpaid Americans stretch their money and time. No wonder it’s so hard to quit.

A man looks beleaguered in front of a laptop with Amazon boxes behind him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Spencer Platt/Getty Images and lolostock/iStock/Getty Images.

There are more than 100 million paid subscriptions to Amazon Prime, the inordinately convenient service that provides fast shipping, good deals, and prestige television to consumers. The majority of U.S. households (51 percent) have an account. Increasingly, people are wising up to both the company’s serious threat as a monopoly and its willingness to seek domination at the expense of the health of its blue-collar workers. Citing these atrocities, some people have vocally canceled their accounts and encouraged others to do the same.

A rising number of people willing to revolt against Amazon is a good thing—consumers using their collective power to show that they care about labor and market consolidation is a compelling way to agitate for change. But it’s also worth thinking about why canceling an Amazon subscription might be hard, if not impossible, for many people. It’s simply not a step that everyone can take, and that’s not just because people are unwilling to forgo convenience. It’s easy to forget, because everyone has to do it and it’s often pleasurable, but shopping is labor. In a country with lacking social services for parents, and a pay structure that undervalues certain kinds of labor, Prime has stepped in to fill a gap. For parents, creatives, teachers stretching to make ends meet, or disabled or elderly folks who have trouble leaving the house, it can serve as a Band-Aid, helping them save money and time.

I talked to a number of a people who are Prime users and feel unable to cancel their accounts. The most consistent theme was that Amazon saved them time and money that they couldn’t spare. Kevin Davies, who lives in New Jersey, says he and his wife find Prime useful in part because the service sends giant boxes of diapers to their second-floor condo unit at a 20 percent discount. “We are working parents (fortunately I work from home, so there’s no day care cost) trying to pay our bills and sock a little away for emergencies and retirement (and now college),” Davies explained in an email, enumerating the long list of ways that Prime helps his family save money.

He questions whether skipping Prime and bringing his business elsewhere would be helpful in the bigger picture. He was an assistant manager of a Walmart for two years, and “they treat everyone like garbage,” he said.

Shannon, a mom of two who lives in the Northeast, felt similarly. “We considered canceling our subscription; however, with a baby due in January and a 5- and 3-year-old at home I just cannot part with the convenience. Convenience in the dead of winter, I may add.” She’s a homemaker, and her husband travels a lot for work.

A librarian in Miami named Nneka noted that “Saving money is really critical,” in a DM on Twitter. “Amazon helps with that. Also allows me to treat myself.”

NYC-based DJ Erzen Krivca also noted needing to pinch pennies: “I saw a celebrity on Twitter say ‘if you live in NYC you can go across the street and get your own toilet paper.’ That’s true BUT I also have to [pay] an exorbitant amount for rent!!,” he wrote in an email.

Small-business owners rely on Prime to make ends meet, too. “Do I want to get on the road and ride bumper to bumper to get to the store for a few items, such as stationery and a couple of boxes of Lipton tea?” a director of marketing at a small PR firm told CNBC. “I find that I have less stress throughout the day, thanks to shopping online.” This description speaks to the reality that shopping is labor, and doing it eats up time and money that could be spent elsewhere. Via Prime, Amazon has decided to foot the bill of a cost that we don’t think of until suddenly it has evaporated from our lives. And once you’ve gotten used to it, it’s a hard deal to undo.

Of course, Prime is ultimately a terrible way to help struggling people struggle less—it saves people a small amount of time and money … at the expense of other people. What we need, change-wise, is policy actions that both take on Amazon and support the people who currently rely on it. This reality might help explain why I haven’t been able to decide what to do with my own Amazon account. With so many subscriptions, canceling mine feels akin to recycling to save the planet—larger action is much more critical to change than making sure a handful of plastic bottles don’t end up in a landfill. At the same time, even if the boycott doesn’t swell to be big enough to affect Amazon’s bottom line, it can still influence the company’s future—small actions, if broadcast to a social network and in turn, to politicians, can help spur that change. And in that way, those unable to entirely give up their Prime accounts can still participate with the account-cancelers in the movement to denounce Amazon, by being vocal about what aspects of the company they find unsavory and cutting back in smaller ways (say, by refusing to use Prime Now’s same-day delivery), even if they continue to use the service as a whole.