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Packages passed down a conveyor belt before receiving a shipping label at Amazon in Shakopee, Minn.

Packages passed down a conveyor belt before receiving a shipping label at Amazon in Shakopee, Minn. (Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

SEATTLE - It was the biggest Prime Day ever – because it always is, and this time it went on for two days. It was also the noisiest, as Amazon's critics and competitors tried to co-opt the retailer's annual summer sale Monday and Tuesday for their own goals.

Amazon did not sit idle, however, countering its critics in real time even as it touted deals on millions of items to its most loyal customers.

The size and success of Amazon and its Prime sale are what create the platform for criticism, said Eric Schiffer of Reputation Management Consultants, which provides crisis communication services to major brands and celebrities.

"The media will follow (Prime Day) like a magnet and then if you add controversy, these groups and advocacy organizations know they'll capture a share of voice," he said.

The drama took the form of the first strike at an Amazon warehouse in the U.S., which Amazon said included only 15 workers, though many more expressed support online and in person; larger work stoppages in Germany; rallies at other company locations, including its Seattle headquarters; and messages of support for strikers from politicians, including presidential candidates such as U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.

Schiffer said there had been "rumblings" from Amazon critics around past Prime Days – European unions, in particular, have held actions around the sale – but "nothing like this year," which he described as an organized effort to hijack of the event for political purposes.

Amazon, with former Obama administration press secretary Jay Carney as its head of global corporate affairs, had its communications strategy in place. And it looked "far more like a political organization than like a brand," Schiffer said.

"They're aggressive and they're proactive and they don't want to be defined ... Not unlike what you'd see in a presidential campaign," he said.

It's difficult to determine what, if any, impact the strikers, the politicians and the attention paid to them had on sales.

Amazon, as it has after previous Prime Days, touted just how big a sale it was: 175 million items purchased; more sales on July 15 and 16 than during the two capital-letter shopping days of the holiday season, Black Friday and Cyber Monday; $2 billion in sales by small and medium businesses using Amazon's platform to reach customers.

But as in prior years, the company's public accounting of Prime Day provides little detail on total sales or year-over-year growth.

In a lengthy list of highlights, Amazon noted increased sales of its broad suite of home sensor and automation devices, including its doorbell cameras, Internet-connected plugs, microphone-and-speaker combos and wireless networking products. As it is designed to do, Prime Day also enticed more people to sign up for Amazon's core Prime membership program - a prerequisite for receiving the sale prices - than in any other previous two-day period. But there is also evidence that some people sign up for memberships to avail themselves of the deals with the intention of cancelling afterwards.

On Tuesday, Jeff Bezos tethered himself atop the Spheres at the company's Seattle headquarters and held a "Thank You" sign over his head, acknowledging the customers and workers involved in the sale.

Large Amazon competitors, which have increasingly piggybacked on Prime Day with their own summer promotions, benefited with a 72% boost in sales compared to an average Tuesday, according to Adobe Analytics.

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Some smaller ones that tried to take advantage of anti-Amazon sentiment stirred up by the strikes and protests also reported records: Seattle-based Libro.fm, an audio books competitor to Amazon's Audible service, said it had a record number of new sign-ups during the first two days of the week.

"It was a surprise that the biggest two-day sales stretch in our history occurred on Amazon's biggest day, even surpassing sales of our own Independent Bookstore Day," Libro.fm CEO Mark Pearson said in a statement.

As the Prime sale wound down Tuesday, Amazon issued a statement noting the size of a strike at its Shakopee, Minn., facility – "roughly 15 associates participated" – relative to the 1,500-person full-time work force at the fulfillment center.

The Awood Center, a community group serving East African immigrants that organized the strike, did not return requests for comment. It did say on Twitter Monday evening that severe weather in Shakopee prompted a shutdown of the picket line before a second shift of workers could join.

Asked for its estimate of the size of a strike in Germany, where workers are seeking a collective bargaining agreement, Amazon said in a statement, "While we don't provide exact numbers, we are seeing very limited participation ... with zero operational impact and therefore no impact on customer deliveries."

The UNI Global Union, which is coordinating disgruntled Amazon workers in multiple countries, said some 2,000 workers went on strike at seven German fulfillment centers.

Sanders and a dozen House Democrats, including Rep. llhan Omar of Minnesota, followed up their social media support with a request that federal workplace regulators investigate all Amazon warehouses.

Amazon responded the same day with a blog post asserting that Sanders is misrepresenting working conditions at the company and reiterating its invitation to the Senator to visit any of Amazon's facilities himself. The company also noted that Omar did not raise concerns in the months following her visit.

"If Rep. Omar and Sen. Sanders really want to help the American worker, they should focus on passing legislation that raises the federal minimum wage - $7.25 is too low," the post concluded.

Amazon last fall raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Schiffer said Amazon's attempts to refocus the conversation on a national issue where it is leading its competitors is a solid strategy for brands that come under criticism.

"You either define things or you're going to get defined," he said.

Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com

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