Retail: Vermont’s small businesses face an Amazon problem

By Kevin O’Connor
VTDigger.org

Stacy Mitchell has seen all the headlines: Take “Vermont Last State in America to Get a Walmart.” Or “The Only State Capital Without a McDonald’s.” Or “Towns Have an Image, and They Say Dollar Stores Aren’t Part of It.”

“Vermont,” she says, “has more small businesses per capita and the least big-box square footage of any state in the country.”

But the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance says that for all the pushback against chain competition, Vermonters aren’t seeing or talking about a threat of more amazonian proportions.

Make that Amazon.com proportions.

“Vermont is perhaps the only place one can point to for not allowing companies to overwhelm the local economy,” she says, “but Amazon is having a similar effect, and it’s invisible.”

That’s why Mitchell was visiting the state this week for public programs in Burlington and Manchester on “Amazon’s Stealth Invasion of Vermont.”

The Green Mountain State’s independent streak is such that any intrusion – consider last month’s headline “Target Is Coming to Vermont, the Last U.S. State Without the Store” – is deemed national news.

But according to an Institute for Local Self-Reliance report titled “Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities,” the nation’s largest internet retailer is infiltrating the state covertly one iPhone and iPad at a time.

“Within five years, one-fifth of the U.S.’s $3.6 trillion retail market will have shifted online,” begins the study written by Mitchell and colleague Olivia LaVecchia, “and Amazon is on track to capture two-thirds of that share.”

The company also controls an increasing percentage of the nation’s economic infrastructure, providing digital commerce and cloud computing programs and offering thousands of products ranging from blouses, batteries and baby food to television and movies.

“Amazon’s bet is that as long as consumers are enjoying one-click ordering and same-day delivery, we won’t pay much attention to the company’s creeping grip,” the report says.

But Mitchell fears Vermonters eventually will see the results on a personal and public level.

“The retail sector accounts for 1 out of every 10 jobs in the state,” she says. “Amazon requires half as many employees to distribute the same amount of goods.”

The company doesn’t have any stores or stockrooms in Vermont, meaning any economic benefit from a purchase goes elsewhere. “The heart and soul of our communities are our Main Streets,” she says. “What are the social and financial implications when we have more and more vacancies?”

She believes formulating an answer is more important than ever with the explosive growth of the internet retailer. “The research we have done is eye-opening,” she says. “I want to raise the alarm, but what really matters is what can consumers, policymakers and communities do about it. It’s on us to make ourselves aware of what the options are.”

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