When Amazon opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore on the east coast in March, it was in Dedham’s Legacy Place, an upscale shopping center with a big L.L. Bean store and a Whole Foods.
It was a match made in upper-middle-class heaven. So it went Friday, as a lunchtime crowd descended on the supermarket’s salad bar (vegan buffalo tofu; kale salad with cranberries and walnuts; $9.49 a pound).
About a hundred yards away at the Amazon store, an employee was introducing a woman to Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s popular Echo speaker. Alexa was taking requests.
“Alexa, play the Rolling Stones,” the salesman said.
Alexa obliged, and the opening drumbeat of “Sympathy for the Devil” started playing: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
Amazon’s announcement Friday that it would acquire Whole Foods, salad bar and all, for $13.7 billion spawned visions of some sort of shopping singularity: Bring me the finest in meats and cheeses, and deliver them free to my door via drone! What would come next? Some unholy alliance between rivals? A TarGoogle, if you will, arming itself for e-commerce battle with the Amazon-Whole Foods Frankenstein that we’ll call Whole World? If this is the start of the StuffWhitePeopleLike wars, then Jeff Bezos just killed Archduke Ferdinand.
For some of us, these two companies hold more important places in our lives than we’d care to admit: They clothe us and feed us and entertain us. As nonhuman relationships go, that’s about as deep as it gets outside your chosen place of worship.
But the blizzard of news about the sale obscured something important about this deal: There are many millions of people — far more than half the country — for whom this news means exactly nothing.
Despite a place in the public consciousness that’s approximately one rung below God, only about 40 percent of American consumers bought something from Amazon last year, according to market researchers at the NPD group. Whole Foods was half that. Walmart? 95 percent. Maybe you wouldn’t be caught dead in a Dollar Tree, but 71 percent of Americans disagree; the chain opened 600 new stores last year.
Rather, people in some rural areas rely on Internet connections that still barely surpass dial-up speeds when they work at all, a Wall Street Journal report showed last week. And the working poor? Well, try asking Alexa which past-due utility bill to pay first.
In a 2015 TED Talk, the journalist and author Anand Giridharadas listed “you live near a Whole Foods” as one of seven ways to separate the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots,’ along with hypotheticals about your family’s military service and meth use.
We’ve heard a lot, particularly in the wake of the election, about how people in coastal cities misunderstood or outright ignored vast swaths of the country. But if geography is a blurry lens for political purposes, it’s downright distorted for socioeconomic purposes.
“What I observe is a pair of secessions from the unifying center of American life,” Giridharadas said in his talk — an affluent and educated America for which opportunity comes with two-day free delivery, and the disconnected and disadvantaged. That second secession? That’s the people doing the dirty work of packing up and delivering all this stuff to our doors in two days.
If Walmart bought Price Chopper, who would even click the story link?
This isn’t a 99 percent problem, though that’s a popular construction these days — it’s more like a 30 percent problem. A week ago, Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, urged New York Times readers to “stop pretending you’re not rich,” a pithy but appropriate headline for a wise dissection of middle-class privilege.
“For Americans to solve the problem of their deepening class divisions,” Reeves wrote, “we will have to start by admitting their existence and our complicity in maintaining them.”
At Whole Foods on Friday, beautiful boneless ribeyes were on sale for $11.99 a pound. While it would be nice to have that delivered right to the door, it would be even better if we got to know the person who delivered it.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.