Across America, semi-homeless "nomads" drive from big-box store to big-box store, hunting for items on clearance that Amazon customers are paying a premium for; when they find them, they snap them up and add them to the bins at Fulfillment by Amazon warehouses, whence they are shipped on to consumers.
The arbitrage is made possible by a combination of factors: the slow death of big-box retail, which is especially keen in out-of-the-way post-industrial casualties of the Great Recession means that there are stores at the end of every secondary road desperately trying to flog off the merchandise the locals don't want and/or can't afford. Then there's the retail cycle itself, which sees beloved products discontinued despite a faithful following, because that following simply isn't large enough to sustain the product (which is why the deadstock for the orphaned Bounce Dryer Bars sell in two-packs for $300; see also: Walmart pajama bottoms before they switched to a stiffer, less comfy cotton; and a discontinued brand of dental floss whose adherents pay $100 for a six pack that once retailed for $0.99; and discontinued flavors of cat-food that are the only thing that a beloved, aging pet will tolerate).
The nomads — lovingly and beautifully profiled in a piece by Josh Dzieza for The Verge — are like carrion beetles, stripping the carcasses of the dwindling brick-and-mortar retail industry, except that unlike carrion beetles, they don't consume the few useful morsels still left on the bones; instead, they ship them to Amazon, the pathogen that triggered the die-off, making it more deadly, and hastening the process.
The process is speeding up: big box-to-Amazon arbitrage is a shrinking sector, as more economically desperate people enter the field, and as the pickings get slimmer. The pickers that Dzieza profiles are curiously unattached to material goods, as their perch at the bottom of the food-chain gives them a unique perspective on consumerism and its fleeting delights that cures them of any sense that keeping this stuff will make them happy.
William Gibson once told me that "Ebay has normalized the contents of the nation's attics." It's a line that's stuck with me: one of the things that Ebay did for me was cure me of my sense that if I didn't snatch up a rarity when I saw it in a junk shop or garage sale, it would disappear forever. Now I know that the world's tchotchkes are forever circulating in a kind of gaussian cloud that has been lovingly catalogued in a database that I can reach into at any time and pull whatever I need out of it on a day or two's notice.
There's nothing quite like a clearance section for feeling the intensity and fleetingness of consumer desire: all these plastic leftovers of huge public appetites, which were shaped for a time by enormous companies and have since moved on to robot monkey finger puppets or whatever. The scale is overwhelming. Anderson recalls an auction for pallets of robotic hamsters called ZhuZhu Pets, which were briefly hot in 2009, with a Disney Channel cartoon and video games. The pallet was number 20,000. "That means somebody imported 20,000 pallets at least. That is an insane number." Doing the math, he comes up with almost 800 tractor-trailers full of robot hamsters that had become so unprofitable on Amazon that he told the auctioneer he wouldn't take them if he was paid to.
I was surprised at first by how often the nomads distanced themselves from material culture, speaking of their customers and fellow shoppers from an almost anthropological remove. But it makes sense when you realize that they make most of their money by immersing themselves in the pre-holiday buying frenzy. Anderson has Thanksgiving with his mom a day early so he can venture out to the stores, a tradition that dates back to his time working retail. He always brings a buddy; it's too harrowing to face alone. He's seen hungry-eyed adults fighting over TVs and parents crying out in desperation that, without a particular toy, their kid's Christmas will be ruined.
"Too many people are unhappy, and I don't think they know why they're unhappy, so they're like, 'I'm going to buy a new toy, and that'll make me happy,' and it does not," he says. "So many people are owned by their possessions."
Road-tripping with the Amazon nomads [Josh Dzieza/The Verge]