“It’s instant gratification that just looks like a phone.”
That was my first thought last week when Amazon officially introduced the Fire phone. In an interview with The Times’s Farhad Manjoo, Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, made it very clear that one of the primary purposes of the device was to help you buy more stuff.
When asked about the connection between the phone and buying from Amazon, Mr. Bezos replied, “We make those actions very simple. As we should. Guess what: One of the things people want to do with their phones is buy stuff, from Amazon and in general. So helping people take care of their shopping tasks is an important job to do in any smartphone.”
Let’s get something straight. When Mr. Bezos says that people want help with their shopping tasks, he probably isn’t talking about picking up some eggs and fruit for breakfast, even if Amazon is conducting limited grocery tests. A better translation for his answer would be, “We want to help people spend more money on unnecessary plastic items in the hope that it will help us increase Amazon’s profits.”
This blatant attempt to get American consumers to spend more is not new. But for some reason this one has me a bit upset. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with companies trying to sell more stuff. What bothers me is that we buy into the idea.
The Times’s David Streitfeld described the Fire phone as offering “Amazon fans the chance to live in an Amazon-themed world, where just about every element can be identified, listed, ranked, shared and, of course, ordered.” Note he uses the word “fans” instead of “customers.” If we’re fans, then we’re just supporting something we love when we spend more money, right?
Rebecca Lieb, an Altimeter Group analyst, said in the same article that you can use the phone to “scan a product or listen to music, and you’re delivered straight to the page on Amazon on which you can purchase it. Impulse shopping just went to a new level.” Even Ralph de la Vega, chief executive of AT&T Mobility (the phone’s exclusive carrier), raved that he planned to “buy a whole lot more … with this technology.”
I thought that after the Great Recession, we learned our lesson and were trying to buy less. Or, at the very least, aren’t we trying to become clearer about why we’re buying things? Don’t we try to teach our children that one of the keys to a successful life is learning to control our impulses and to delay gratification? Haven’t we conclusively found that buying more stuff does not make us happy?
By dropping the Fire phone in our pocket, we’re throwing all those lessons out the window. And that’s on us, not Amazon. We’re making the choice to pick up the phone, and we’re signing on to the idea that we want it to be very easy to buy even more stuff.
Almost all of the stuff I buy on my smartphone is a spontaneous purchase, not a carefully weighed decision. Do we really need more of those purchases in our lives? Yes, the Fire phone makes it that much easier to hit the “buy” button, but is that a good thing? It’s certainly not a path to greater happiness, even if it comes with free, two-day shipping. (Each phone includes a one-year Prime membership.)
To be clear, the issue isn’t whether companies like Amazon should find ways to profit from our behavior. The issue is whether we should be willing to go along with it, and even pay for the privilege of doing so, particularly when we look at other factors that we know affect our happiness.
For instance, after ticking down steadily for several years during the recession, credit card debt resumed its upward trend in 2014. In April alone, the balances on Americans’ credit cards increased “at the fastest pace in almost 13 years.” News items about this surge all praised “rising consumer confidence,” but at the same time there are plenty of people nearing retirement who don’t have enough money to stop working.
The last time I checked, we weren’t particularly happy when we’re in greater debt and don’t have enough money to retire. But that’s the outcome we face when we don’t bother to pull back and ask the bigger question about things like the Fire phone, including, “Does this device actually make my life better?” and “Could it make my life worse?”
Unfortunately, there isn’t yet a device that makes it easy to say, “I’m better off NOT buying something.” At the moment, all we have to rely on is who we see in the mirror, and maybe a better-behaved partner.
So it’s on us to push back against the things that encourage us to buy more instead of saving more. It’s on us to opt out of things that make it so tempting to do things in the short term (credit card debt) that can cost us in the long term (retirement).
We are more than a dollar sign to some company and it’s time we started acting like it.
This commentary originally appeared June 23 on NYTimes.com
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