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UMass men’s basketball prepares for transitional season in 2017-18 -

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Veteran belonging and the decline of American communities discussed by journalist and author at Amherst College -

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November 15, 2017

Amazon is abandoning UMass. What do we do now?

(Collegian File Photo)

If you told me you hadn’t been to Amazon’s store at the University of Massachusetts to pick up books yet, I wouldn’t believe you.

But don’t feel guilty if you really have resisted the urge to order books from Amazon’s simple interface, even knowing that you can expect your package to appear the very next day. In fact, I’d applaud it; not buying through Amazon is a way of supporting small businesses and diversifying buyers.

But principle doesn’t change the fact that Amazon, UMass’ current contractor for textbooks, provides an absurdly convenient, fast and affordable service for books. One-day shipping for free? It sounds too good to be true.

Maybe that’s because it is. News broke that Amazon will be cancelling their contract with UMass at the end of December 2018, forcing the school to search for a new company to replace them. In October, a Massachusetts Daily Collegian article reported that “the Amazon store may be coming to an end.” The president of the Student Government Association, Anthony Vitale, has warned that the implications of this haven’t yet been fully realized.

This campus development has hardly received the publicity it deserves. Students in America already pay unbelievable prices for textbooks and other supplies — up to $1,200 a year on average — despite an obvious and immense demand from 20.4 million college students. On our campus, the discounts students see as a result of Amazon’s contract are considerable: potential savings of $380 annually, according to the University.

One can hope that a new bid will result in similar savings (which may happen), along with an opportunity for small businesses to fill the void. But Amazon-addicted students at UMass will hold any new contract to a standard that seems impossible for them to meet. Many students are already subscribed to an Amazon Prime account and know what to expect from the delivery giant. Can local businesses — or any one of Amazon’s competitors, for that matter — realistically convince students to use their services instead of ordering from Amazon, even if we lose the convenient store?

It’s a losing situation for everyone but Amazon. The University won’t be able to collect revenue from students who continue to order from Amazon after the contract expires, missing out on a huge money-making opportunity. Students will probably do what they see as the easiest option, either ordering from Amazon with fewer discounts and less convenience, or buying from our new contracted bookseller. I won’t rule out the possibility that a new contract could be as convenient as what we have today, but anyone would be hard-pressed to find such a service.

Amazon’s exit turns a normal market situation on its head. After all, demand for affordable textbooks is astronomical — not only do students not have a choice in purchasing these items, they are also eager for decreased costs which will save them money and could lower the amount they have to take out in loans. As a result, Amazon’s digital marketplace is a seemingly perfect business model: Commission was 2.5 percent for the university, and Amazon agreed to pay the university $375,000, $465,000 and $610,000 respectively over the first three years. The fact that they’ve now canceled the contract suggests that Amazon did not make as much money as it expected.

We have no data to show exactly how many people used the service, but given the crowds in the store on weekdays, I find it hard to believe that it was a disappointing turnout. If a multinational corporation run by the richest man in the world thinks textbook service is too expensive to handle, who can handle it?

It would be great if a local bookseller could replace the digital giant, but online markets like Amazon have already destabilized local ones. According to the Greenfield Recorder, Nat Herold, the owner of Amherst Books (which has a contract with the drastically smaller Hampshire College), hopes that Amazon’s departure will help their business in the short term because “no other company…poses a threat to his business quite like Amazon.”

Despite their willingness to bid, “Amherst Books couldn’t handle all those massive needs” that they would have to if they made a contract with the university, according to Herold. Since this business is the only bookstore left in Amherst Center, it is more than likely our next contractor will not come from the area.

Should Amazon restore the contract? The answer is not simple. Of course I appreciate and utilize the services they offer, but those same services created a dependency that will be hard for students to transition from — if not impossible.

So what do we do? Students should follow the bidding for a new contract and be active with their Student Government Association to weigh in on the best way to proceed. As for the university, I sincerely hope the school can pressure Amazon to be transparent about their decision to end their contract. Perhaps this was an honest experiment that needed to be cut short. Until that is clarified, students can only fill in the blanks for themselves — and hopefully remember this betrayal the next time they surf the Amazon website.

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at jmazarakis@umass.edu.

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