I just bought a new printer for $29 on Amazon. I ordered it yesterday afternoon, and it arrived before noon today. First, how can they sell a wireless printer and copier for only $29? And second, how can they get it to my home in less than 24 hours?
In the 1970s, the company I worked for bought its first dot-matrix printer. It cost well over $5,000 and took up the better part of a room. It was so noisy they had to spend another chunk of change building a container around it to soundproof it so people could actually do some work.
It used up entire forests' worth of scrolling paper with little sprocket holes on the side. It broke down constantly. The paper would jam, the ink nozzles would clog, the printer wouldn't talk to the computer, it was Tuesday, someone sneezed. Finally, they hired a guy full-time just to keep it running.
I never did figure out what they were printing.
My little $29 printer can't print thousands of pages, but for the 10 times a year I do need a hard copy, it's fine. Most forms you can fill out online now. Every time I receive a bill that asks if I want to "go paperless," I say yes. Even at the low, low price of $29, it won't be long before home printers go the way of buckled shoes and camera film that you have to drop off to be developed.
The only snail mail I get now is spam. Thank goodness the post office gives spam mailers a price break on postage, or I'd never know I could get lower rates on my mortgage, my credit card, my electricity, my life insurance, my health insurance and my medicine. All I have to do is jump through a few of their hoops and somehow I'll end up paying exactly the same. Or more.
But really: How did Amazon get a printer to me in less than 24 hours? Even a drone can't do that. Yet. I didn't see who delivered my package, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a robot. Yet. How is it that when I send someone a postcard, they'll get it in a few weeks, but Amazon and a few other companies can get me a big package in 18 hours? And I live far out of town: It's a 35-minute drive to the nearest grocery store. It's an hour and a half to the nearest big box store — round-trip, that would be three hours. And I've never seen a printer there for less than a hundred bucks. There is some magic going on here that I can't suss out.
Here's the thing: If you bake cookies this Christmas and want to send some to a friend, you'll have to put them in a box, go to the post office, wait in line for half an hour and then listen to them ask you if you're sending anything flammable, breakable, plaid, or a thousand other things. Then they'll tell you it's $9 to send it to the other side of town, and that the sendee should recieve it in a few weeks. By the way, do you want insurance on that?
Or, you could order cookies from Amazon, tell them it's a gift and they'll get it to your friends 49 states away. Tomorrow. For free.
"Well," people will say, "Amazon can do it because it's a loss leader. They don't make any money on it, it's just to get you into the store to buy stuff they do make money on." That would be right, except Amazon doesn't have any stores to get me into (though they are experimenting with some). It sounds as if I'm shilling for Amazon, but they have fundamentally changed the way we shop. That doesn't mean they are problem-free, but think about it: Has your bank fundamentally changed banking? Has your hospital fundamentally changed health care? Has your local education board made schools fundamentally better?
Are we fixing potholes faster? When people say, "We should run the government like a business," Amazon is the business they should be looking at. Not Enron.
Contact Jim Mullen at email@example.com.