Amazon.com plans to reward shoppers on Saturday for what some Doylestown retailers believe is immoral and predatory behavior designed to put them out of business.
During Saturday's one-day promotion, the online megastore is offering customers up to $5 off on as many as three eligible items if they use its Price Check mobile phone application to relay price information from brick and mortar stores. The information can be sent by scanning barcodes, photographing a product, speaking the product name or sending a text message.
“It’s kind of evil,” said Blair Elliot, owner of . His store sells music, one of several products Amazon is focusing on Saturday. The others are toys, electronics, sporting goods and DVDs.
“It’s definitely immoral and heavy-handed,” Elliot said. “What’s ironic is they claim they want to work with independent businesses, but all they’re really trying to do is put independent businesses under.
“It’s just another thing to have to worry about as a small business.”
Amazon, which did not return calls for comment Thursday, said in a press release and on its website that Price Check is designed to save its customers money.
“Price transparency means that you can save money on the products you want and that’s a great thing for customers,” said Sam Hall, director of Amazon Mobile. “Price Check in-store deals are another incentive to shop smart this holiday season.”
“With every in-store price you share, you help ensure our prices remain competitive for our customers,” the website says on the promotion page.
“It’s predatory really," said Pat Gerney, owner of the . “It sounds like they’re out to squash all of the small businesses.
“It’s just another way we have a real battle to stay alive, all independents, not just bookstores,” she said.
Ellen Mager, owner of the children’s bookstore, , isn’t planning to let anyone send information to Amazon from her store.
“It’s disgraceful, and if anybody comes into my store and tries to do it, they’re getting bounced,” she said. She added that she would first ask people to stop and then request they leave if they do not comply.
Mager said it would be a slap in the face if a customer tried using Price Check to send information to Amazon. That’s "paying somebody to hurt somebody else,” she said.
As a preemptive strike, Mager said she also plans to put a sign on her front door saying, “Due to past incidents, this is a no cell phone zone.”
Gerney said she also would ask people to stop, if she saw them using the application, but Elliot said he would rely on his customers to do the right thing.
“People have to police themselves and be aware of the greater implications, and the implication here is they’re almost trying to put a business like this under with what they’re doing,” he said.
Lee Rutherford, owner with his brother Bruce of , wondered whether the practice was legal and called it an invasion of privacy. “That’s kind of like sending out the spies,” he said.
He said he didn’t think any of his customers would be so brazen.
Marianne Coia, owner of , feels much the same way about her customers. “It would be weird for them,” she said. “A lot of my customers are real local. They really value shopping locally.”
Coia said she expected customers in big box stores might take part.
While information about Coia’s merchandise, candy, nuts and gift baskets, isn’t what Amazon is after – at least not so far – intelligence on what Nerice Kendter sells is.
The owner of said she finds it offensive that a company of Amazon’s size would use customers to conduct market research.
“Companies like Amazon have the bank account that no small business will ever have for their marketing and advertising,” she said. “Amazon can afford to pay a marketing employee.”
According to Hall, Amazon “scours” online and in-store advertisements from other retailers all year round. “Now,” he added, “we are enabling customers to use the Price Check app to share in-store prices while they search for the best deals. This is a powerful opportunity for customers to get involved and ensures Amazon customers get the best possible prices.”
With more consumers buying online both on their computers and on their mobile phones, Kendter said she realizes online shopping is here to stay. She adds, however, that people need to understand the importance of small businesses, especially in communities like Doylestown.
“If the brick and mortars in the community were to close because of online retailers, the feel of the communities in this area and across the country would be forever altered,” she said. “A vibrant community has a mix of retail and service businesses.”
Each of the merchants, including Kendter, say their customers value shopping locally as a way to get great customer service and support their community.
However, Mager said some people seek out her expertise and then want to order the books she has recommended online.
Customers, Kendter said, have a desire for “top-notch service with all the bells and whistles at an Amazon price. That’s where the disconnect is. You cannot have all that wrapped up in one.”