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Small business owners call on Congress to grill Amazon’s Bezos

Small business owners who say they were mistreated by Amazon are calling on Congress to grill Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is expected to testify on Monday.

In a call arranged by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance advocacy group, three small business owners who sold products like cosmetics and outdoor sports gear said they felt used, squeezed, and ultimately disenfranchised on Amazon, a platform they felt they had to use. The ILSR is a part of the Athena Coalition, a pro-labor organization that has long criticized the tech giant.

Mike Massey, the third-generation owner of Massey’s Outfitters from New Orleans, said his company was among the first outdoor sports retailers on the platform. Massey said he advocated to get bigger brands like Patagonia and The North Face on Amazon, and was an evangelist for Amazon for small businesses. But in early 2013, he left the platform.

“I find it frustrating that local businesses are going out of business because they can’t build enough market power…”

In his statement, he compared Amazon to a mall landlord who invites in stores, and then spies on those stores and sets up rival shops right next door that sell the exact same products, but cheaper.

“I find it frustrating that local businesses are going out of business because they can’t build enough market power or reach people in new ways,” Massey said. “Is this really what we want?”

Doug Mrdeza, the CEO of Top Shelf Brandsof Lansing, Michigan, said his company ultimately tried to take its products off of Amazon — like Massey had — after years of dealing with increasingly untenable financial demands and pressures on its suppliers. After tripling the size of the company to keep up with Amazon’s internal business stipulations, it ultimately had to lay everyone off at the beginning of 2020 over a financial dispute with the platform.

Even now, Top Shelf still has two active Amazon seller accounts.

Mrdeza said he found it ironic that Amazon has said they “seek to become Earth’s most customer-centric company,” but that the same courtesy wasn’t extended to sellers.

“My question for him [Bezos, at the hearing on Monday] would be aren’t the sellers also a customer? Why aren’t we included in the customer-centric narrative?” Mrdeza said.

Amazon packages on a conveyer belt
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said she would be watching what kind of attitude the CEO struck, but the real questions extend beyond just Amazon’s practices to the whole online economic setup.

“There’s this sense that Amazon doesn’t have to comply with any kind of oversight,” Mitchell said. “I think the key questions that we have to answer as Americans is how do we govern and structure the online market. I want the members of Congress to answer how we build an open, equitable economy.”

Hannah Oliver Depp, who owns Loyalty Books based in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Maryland, said she’s watched the bookselling industry dramatically evolve over her years in it, but had so far managed to avoid selling on Amazon’s platform. Most new independent bookstores, she told reporters, were also eschewing Amazon. That doesn’t mean that she was free of Amazon’s reach, and definitely wanted to hear questions about the allegations of Amazon’s monopoly over the online retail space.

“Because of unchecked growth until this point, they [Amazon] have an absurd amount of ability to dictate a lot on the local government level in terms of what taxes they’re paying and what employment practices,” she said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the true human cost of what it takes to ship items to customers.

amazon employee wearing mask

Bezos is expected to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Monday to address allegations that Amazon misled Congress in its business practices.

The calls for Bezos to testify before Congress became louder after a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that Amazon was scooping up its sellers’ data to try and produce similar products, target their customers, and ultimately compete against its own sellers. The report flew in the face of testimony that Nate Sutton, Amazon’s associate general counsel, gave before Congress in July 2019.

An Amazon spokesperson did not disclose what Bezos might address at the hearing on Monday.

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