[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
But not from middlemen I mean, especially Amazon. Like most people, I regularly buy stuff online. (I think that saying “most people” is now globally true?) But I have a big attitude problem about online retail aggregators in general and Amazon in particular. So as a matter of principle I’ve been trying to take significant purchases upstream to the source.
One of the reasons Amazon succeeded is that they were good at making online retail easy at a time when most product manufacturers weren’t. I’m here to report that that’s changing in a good way; upstream purchasing is often a good experience. Which I’ll illustrate with mini product reviews.
Attitude problem · Did I mention I have one? It’s not an Amazon problem, it’s an efficiency problem. Now, late in my adult life, I’ve become convinced that perhaps the central pathology of our time is the relentless pursuit of efficiency, which has overshot its mark and become oppressive. If that sounds crazy (or maybe if it doesn’t), may I offer Just Too Efficient, which I humbly think is the most significant thing I’ve ever written. Efficiency is good, but just like many other of the good things in life, there’s a point past which it’s damaging, even lethal. I think Amazon retail is perhaps the world’s most efficiently-operated business.
Having said all that… · I’m still on Amazon Prime, mostly because I like the TV shows. And when I want to buy something cheap and commoditized, they’re just the ticket. Examples: USB adapters and keys, replacement lens covers, phone screen protectors, KN95 masks. After all these years I find the amazon.com (or in my case, amazon.ca) retail screens make my flesh crawl; the relentless optimization of every freaking pixel rasps on my nervous system.
And when I order an entirely forgettable bit of gear and it shows up that afternoon, that doesn’t feel wonderful to me any more. I can’t help thinking of what had to be sacrificed to make that happen, and I strongly suspect it’s not worth it.
But wow, I totally respect the engineering, those pages load faster than I would have thought possible given their complexity. And not just for mainstream stuff; go search for “electric cello” (see above) or “orange crate”.
Enough of that! Let’s go online and buy stuff!
Jeans · I dress in black slim-fit boot-cut denim nearly every day of the year when it’s not warm enough for shorts.
Which should be easy, but unfortunately I am remarkably average in physical size in every measurable dimension. Which means I never get clothes on sale, and my size seems always the first to go out of stock. And sorting through the jeans racks in a big-box store is a dispiriting exercise. Turns out both Levi’s and Wrangler will sell you just what you want at what looks to me like a fair price.
The sites aren’t as fast as Amazon and, just like that big-box store, they’re sometimes out of stock, but restocking seems to happen much more frequently. You don’t get your stuff as fast as you would from Amazon, but who needs same-day jeans?
Mouse · Last year my main mouse wore out, and I had a remarkable run of Bad Mouse Purchase Experiences. These included flaky Bluetooth, out-and-out failure within weeks, and annoying loud ratcheting noises from the scroll wheel.
I poked around and ended up visiting Logitech.com to pick up a Signature M650, and let me tell ya, it’s one great mouse. Ultra-quiet, ultra-smooth and comes in large and medium because people’s hands differ. It has a couple extra buttons, by default mapped to Forward and Back, which I never use. It probably won’t make a hardcore gamer happy but who cares?
The price was right, delivery was fast enough.
Beer · Vancouver, my home town, has a lot of pretty great small breweries. A bunch of them have got together and created the BeerVan Collective, which also offers cider, Kombucha, alcoholic and non-alc ginger beer, and a bit of brewery brand merch. Order by 4PM and (in my experience) your beer will be there for dinner. They emphasize that the deliverers are brewery employees not labor-arbitraged gig workers.
The only downside I can really bring to mind is that while these boutique ales are very good, they can’t compare with the product you get when you go sit in the brewery’s patio in the shade and drink it fresh out of the tap with nachos or pizza or whatever. And by the way, that Luppolo “Italian Pilsener” is delicious.
Coffee · We have a decent grinder and machine but don’t make espresso drinks at home much any more. Pour-over seems to hit the spot better. A few years back, Vancouver had a thriving ecosystem of local roasters who could get into the supermarket, but these days those shelves are pretty bare of anything but Big Brand Names. We’ve always liked a few of the roasts from Saltspsring Coffee, but what with their diminishing presence in the big-boxes, we really had a hard time buying our favorite “Canopy Bird” blend.
So we ordered a boxfull of Canopy Bird 454g packages, should last a few months. Site works great, and if you order when you open the last bag, your coffee will arrive in time.
Sidebar: Shopify · At both Beer Van and Saltspring, when it came time to pay I found myself dealing with Shop.app, which turns out to be a Shopify thing.
I can’t decide whether Shop is terrific or terrifying. It is ever so slick at sorting out your payment and delivery options; fast, responsive, flexible, Just Works. Except for, once I provided my email address, it knew my credit card info, home and business addresses, and who knows what else. How did that happen? Seriously, I want to know. Anyhow, I’m starting to understand why Shopify is doing so well.
Gimbal · I’ve been trying to branch out from photography to video, so I’ve been learning Da Vinci Resolve and acquiring video gear. In particular I wanted a gimbal, and DJI has the ones to get, and really a very decent web site. Once again: Low friction, and pretty soon an RSC 2 showed up at my door.
Of the purchases listed here, this was the only one that really wasn’t a success. First, while the DJI works great and my main camera is said to be appropriate, I just haven’t been able to get untracked on video. If I do manage to produce anything, people who visit this blog will be the first to know.
Hats · I do not appear in public (indoors or out) without a hat. This started for medical reasons: I’m an extra-white bald guy who grew up in a subtropical climate and have had all sorts of amusing (no, not really) skin lesions on my head.
The dermatologist said “That’s a cancer farm wrapped around your brain there, wear a damn hat when you go out.” And I discovered that I like hats for their own sake. So I visit hat shops, and I recommend that you do too. But online, you just totally can’t beat Sterkowski. They’re made (very nicely) in Poland, attractively priced, and come in almost any imaginable style.
As they say repeatedly on the site, do not press “Buy” until you’ve measured your head, carefully.
Buy upstream · That’s all I’m recommending. Dodge the middlemen, particularly the ones headquartered in Seattle. It might take a little longer to navigate and to ship and to arrive. It’s still a good idea.