Has Amazon decided it's time to start making a profit?

The company has raised prices for small-press books and introduced delivery fees.

Amazon has reinstated delivery charges on orders worth less than £10, signalling a renewed attention to profit margins at the company. The change won't affect books, films, music, video games and software, which between them are the vast majority of the goods the company sells; but it means if you use the site to buy cheap electronics or household goods, you'll soon be hit by delivery charges again.

For the last four years, all orders fulfilled by Amazon have had free shipping provided the customer was prepared to wait up to five days, but before that, the site had a threshold to qualify for its "super saver delivery". That threshold progressively declined from £25 in the years leading up to its abolition. At the same time, the company introduced its Amazon Prime service, which gave unlimited next-day delivery for a flat charge of £49 a year.

Reinstating delivery charges, even in such a limited way, suggests that the company is backing away from its strategy of loss-leaders and revenue growth above all else. The absence of delivery charges makes sense in the context of a company which wants to dominate all shopping, because it's important to establish in customers' minds that they can buy any good at all. But at some point, Amazon may wish to focus on sales which make it money. That's hardly an outrageous proposition for most companies, but it's very different from how they've behaved up until now.

This isn't the first indication of such a change in the company's strategy. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that small publishers were seeing increases in the sale price of their books on Amazon. David Streitfeld wrote:

Other writers and publishers have the same complaint. They say Amazon, which became the biggest force in bookselling by discounting so heavily it often lost money, has been cutting back its deals for scholarly and small-press books. That creates the uneasy prospect of a two-tier system where some books are priced beyond an audience’s reach.

Bruce Joshua Miller, president of Miller Trade Book Marketing, a Chicago firm representing university and independent presses, said he recently surveyed 18 publishers. “Fourteen responded and said that Amazon had over the last few years either lowered discounts on scholarly books or, in the case of older or slow-selling titles, completely eliminated them,” he said.

When the University of Nebraska Press brought out a bibliography of the novelist Jim Harrison four years ago, Amazon charged $43.87. The price this week: $59.87.

Does the company feel like it has grown enough, and is now ready to start making some profit? Or does it perhaps think instead that the competition has been sufficiently cowed that customers now have nowhere else to go?

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.