Stealth retail invasion in Manchester?

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MANCHESTER — How will the growing dominance of online retailers like Amazon impact Vermont's small businesses, jobs, and communities?

That question will lead the conversation between Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), and Anne Galloway, founder and editor of VTDigger.org, at "Amazon's Stealth Invasion of Vermont," to be hosted at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14 by the Northshire Bookstore.

During that discussion Mitchell will present her report "Amazon's Stranglehold: How the How the Company's Tightening Grip on the Economy Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities," which was published in late 2016.

"We found a lot in that research that is quite alarming, and I really feel that communities should be talking about this more than they are," Mitchell said. "That is particularly true in northern New England, where amazon has sort of flown under the radar."

Following a similar event in Burlington on Nov. 13, Mitchell and Galloway will discuss in-depth research conducted by ISLR on Amazon's impact on local commerce in Vermont specifically, where small businesses have historically flourished.

"Vermont has more small businesses per capita than any other state in the country," Mitchell said. "We know from economic research that places that have a significant share of the economy in the hands of local businesses can have a larger middle class with less income inequality."

That thriving landscape for local business did not arise by accident, however, according to Mitchell.

"Part of the history of how Vermont came to have such a vibrant local business economy is that the state and its citizens were very vigilant about big box stores; you have less big box square footage per capita than any other state by a significant margin," she said. "Amazon is having many of the same effects, but there has been no public discussion or response to that."

In the 21st century Amazon has gradually become central to an increasing share of daily transactions, according to Mitchell's research. Currently, two-thirds of all U.S. households are subscribed to the membership program Amazon Prime, more than half of all online shopping searches start directly on Amazon, and Amazon accounts for nearly one in every two dollars that Americans spend online. The company now sells more books, toys, clothing, and electronics than any retailer online or off, and is making big investments in its grocery business.

"There are big implications for competition, and small businesses having the opportunity to compete," Mitchell said. "One out of every ten jobs in Vermont are retail jobs, which online commerce can impact."

Yet for all of its reach, Amazon remains remarkably invisible according to ISLR. While Amazon has no facilities in Vermont specifically, the company exerts growing influence on the state's economy.

"Amazon is severing the relationship between commerce and place," Mitchell said. "When we think about what makes our communities vibrant, our Main Street businesses are a big part of that. They are what puts our town on the map, the places where people run into their neighbors when running errands."

Her conversation with Galloway Mitchell will not only touch on her research, but also provide concrete suggestions for action. How can policymakers begin to address Amazon's market power and impact? What can citizens do to support a more diverse, equitable, and locally rooted economy — even when they're shopping online?

"A lot of what we uncovered in our research is quite eye opening and stunning when you look at what's under way," Mitchell said. "In one way, Amazon is very familiar, but in another way it's this kind of invisible force in our lives and economy. This is an opportunity to pull back the curtain and have a closer look at the far reaching implications of this growing presence."

Prior to the discussion, Northshire Brewery will be on-site at the Bookstore from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. with a selection of local brews. Organizations including the Preservations Trust of Vermont and the Phoenix Bookstore have partnered with ISLR, the Northshire Bookstore, and VTDigger to sponsor the event.

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.

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