At the start of the new six-week lockdown last October, Ryan Tubridy implored listeners to his radio show to "abandon Amazon for the next few weeks" and shop locally instead of bolstering the coffers of the world's biggest online retailer. His plea prompted Pamela Laird, founder of beauty business Moxi Loves, to tweet in defence of Amazon, citing how small- and medium-sized Irish brands also sell on the platform.
"I feel like I'm alone in this, because Amazon is this big giant," says Laird, a former finalist on BBC One's The Apprentice. "But the people selling on there aren't big - they are just small businesses trying to reach a mass audience. For us, it's trying to be where the customer shops. You are not going to beat them so you might as well join them."
Last year, Moxi Loves began selling products such as its Barefaced cleanser-infused makeup removal pads and dry shampoo sheets on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, as well as the e-commerce behemoth's French, Italian and German platforms, with the help of a trading online voucher from her local enterprise office.
"We see Amazon as a marketing opportunity as much as a sales opportunity, because after buying from us on there, people look at our social media and then purchase from our website directly," says Laird.
While Laird uses a UK-based company to handle her Amazon listing and fulfilment, having an Amazon warehouse in Ireland and an Amazon.ie platform would "mean a lot".
"It would give people in Ireland more security to shop on Amazon, because right now they are afraid they will be hit with charges because of Brexit," she says.
There are signs Laird's wish may soon become a reality. Amazon is in the process of securing a 650,000 sq ft warehouse in Baldonnell in west Dublin. This site would be the Seattle-based company's first "fulfilment centre" in Ireland, with Amazon staff picking and packaging goods. A similar facility, built for Amazon in Beaumont, California, employs about 1,000 people.
In addition, the Irish Independent reported last Monday that the Shannon Group has been in talks with Amazon about locating a significant distribution facility and other infrastructure at Shannon Airport. The US company has declined to comment to the media about the distribution or fulfilment facilities.
A fulfilment centre in Ireland would enable Amazon to circumvent the UK and avoid the delays and extra charges that have dogged many of its Irish customers since Brexit came into effect on January 1.
Irish shoppers on Amazon.co.uk have complained about Vat being added to goods from British retailers that cost more than €22, as well as other charges, such as customs duties for goods made outside Britain.
If a fulfilment centre goes ahead, Irish customers could receive their Amazon purchases faster, as they would be coming directly from a domestic warehouse instead of being dispatched from the UK.
Most of Amazon's orders for Irish customers are fulfilled in the UK before being shipped here and delivered by An Post, which has said that "by avoiding the Brexit pipeline, Amazon can get their parcels to us in An Post faster for immediate delivery to the customer". Amazon Prime deliveries from the US company's new Rathcoole warehouse, meanwhile, are delivered by Zeus Logistics.
The move may be a godsend to the Irish customers long accustomed to the speed and convenience of Amazon deliveries, but how would it affect an Irish retail landscape that has been throttled by a series of closures necessitated by Covid-19 restrictions?
Duncan Graham, head of Retail Excellence Ireland, which represents 2,200 retailers, believes an Amazon fulfilment centre would prove a double-edged sword.
"On the one hand, there is an opportunity for Irish retailers to distribute through Amazon, but it's also additional competition. It's the way things are going, with people shopping online more, but it could put more pressure on bricks-and-mortar shops in towns and cities across the country.
"When things do open up, it will be a very different retail scene to that of 2019 because of job losses and empty units.
"In terms of online shopping, if you are a retailer that hasn't gone down that online route - excluding the likes of Penney's, where the online model doesn't work - you are in a vulnerable position."
Shuttered shopfronts have become an all-too-familiar symbol of the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 lockdowns. High-profile fashion retail chains that were already struggling before the crisis have gone out of business, including Debenhams, Warehouse and Oasis. Last Monday, online fashion retailer Asos bought the Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge brands from failed retail group Arcadia, but not its stores, and rival Boohoo - which last year acquired the online business of Oasis and Warehouse - has purchased the Debenhams brand and website.
While Ireland's main streets shed the stores of British fashion chains and as indigenous businesses struggle to survive on State subsidies and supports, Amazon has become one of the world's prime beneficiaries of the pandemic.
Professionals and consumers confined to their homes are using video-conferencing technology for work during the day and watching Amazon Prime and other streaming services at night, thereby boosting demand for Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing and data centre division that has a large presence in Ireland. Meanwhile, shoppers restricted from venturing out to physical stores helped Amazon deliver a record performance.
Last Tuesday, the company reported that quarterly sales had topped $100bn for the first time. Net sales for the period between October and December 2020 jumped 44pc to $125.6bn from the same period a year earlier as consumers turned to the online retailer for Christmas shopping and its delayed Prime Day. Total revenue for 2020 climbed 38pc to $386.1bn, resulting in $21.3bn in net income.
Before announcing its fourth-quarter earnings last Tuesday, Amazon shares had risen 66.4pc over 12 months, compared to a 17pc increase on the benchmark S&P 500 Index.
Jeff Bezos said last week that the company's latest earnings demonstrated it was the "optimal time" to announce he would be stepping down this year as CEO - a role he has held since founding the company as an online bookstore from his Seattle garage in 1994 - to become executive chairman and focus on projects such as The Washington Post and his space exploration company. AWS boss Andy Jassy will take over the reins as chief executive.
In Ireland, the $1.7trn retail giant has already begun to woo businesses that want to sell online and attract new customers: in November, more than 1,000 people (including Laird) and companies of all sizes registered for the first Amazon Academy for the Irish market. The virtual event, held in partnership with Enterprise Ireland, the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, Bord Bia, and local enterprise offices, saw entrepreneurs providing advice on how to start selling on Amazon and even included a recorded message of welcome from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.
However, Paul Montwill, the managing director of Ennis-based Magico, which has helped Irish companies such as Vaughan Shoes and McGuirks Golf to trade online, warns that competition from Amazon could slow down the online growth of domestic businesses. "We have found some retailers who are setting up online do so on Amazon instead of through a website of their own, because it has such a large community - it's like a mini-internet," Montwill says.
"The disadvantage is that you pay a high commission and that eats into your margin. They do offer a quicker-to market-capability. And sometimes a lot of clients reduce down the amount they sell on Amazon once their own websites take off. But if Amazon sees that these businesses have high-selling products, they can decide to put their own products in there, so there are vulnerabilities."
While the pandemic has compelled a growing number of bricks-and-mortar businesses to start trading online, figures from Bank of Ireland last year indicated that some 70pc of online shopping in Ireland was hoovered up from foreign-based websites. Concern that the online boom wouldn't prop up struggling Irish businesses led to campaigns by Irish retailers and organisations such as Guaranteed Irish to persuade consumers to shop locally. And by the start of December, a survey of Irish shoppers published by Censuswide on behalf of Paypal found that 62pc of consumers made an effort to buy locally and from smaller retailers during the second lockdown, while up to 80pc said they would spend more with local retailers at Christmas.
Guaranteed Irish, a non-profit organisation that represents 1,200 Ireland-based businesses that employ a combined 100,000 people, last year launched a new website called Guaranteedirishgifts.ie as a one-stop-shop for hundreds of Irish businesses throughout the country.
Bríd O'Connell, CEO of the organisation, says: "We did it to drive traffic to small businesses and we don't take commission. We would welcome any additional jobs coming from Amazon, but we would caution against Amazon cannibalising a business's own website.
"The reality is that a giant like Amazon is not going to go away, so it would be ridiculous to put our heads in the sand. If they were willing to work with Guaranteed Irish businesses, we'd be open to discussions with them. Covid has really accelerated the trend for shopping locally and for doing business in local towns and villages. If a big giant like Amazon is looking to capture that trend, they need to look at a platform for local businesses and securing the future of these small businesses at a national level. Otherwise there could be a massive backlash."
Concern about Amazon's dominance over local businesses has been around for decades, but reports about how the company treats workers are increasingly stirring unease among some consumers.
Last year it was reported that more than 19,000 people working for Amazon had contracted Covid-19, leading to some staff protests. Last Tuesday, Amazon said it was working to ensure that its front-line employees receive vaccines as soon as possible. The company was this week ordered to pay $61.7m to settle a US Federal Trade Commission finding that the company had withheld tips meant for Flex delivery drivers for more than two years, and Amazon has launched an anti-union drive as workers in Alabama strive to form the first union at a company warehouse.
For ardent Amazon fan Laird, however, the company's reputation in Ireland could be partly shored up if it highlighted Irish-made products.
"Having a 'Made in Ireland' or an Irish brand section on Amazon, where people could shop that section, could be an opportunity for them and could really help customers and businesses who are against Amazon," the entrepreneur says.
Sunday Indo Business