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15 May 23

The United States stands out among rich democracies as a shopper’s paradise—the quintessential consumer society. Along with Walmart, Amazon is dominated by huge, lean retailers whose business model is premised on squeezing suppliers and workers to deliver goods to American consumers at lightning speed and for “everyday low prices.” What accounts for the spectacular success of these companies? In this talk, Kathleen Thelen traces the origins of the Amazon economy to the late nineteenth century, as large-scale retailers capitalized on the uniquely permissive regulatory landscape of the American political economy. She also analyzes three distinct phases that culminated in the ascendance of the Amazon economy we know today: the construction of a mass market in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries; the politicization of consumption and explosion of chain-store retailing in the 1920s; and the triumph of low-cost, low-wage discount retailers serving low-income postwar consumers.

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