Amazon Seeks Brick-And-Mortar Presence In Boston Area

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Good news for the Greater Boston technology sector: Amazon may be coming to the area.

The company — the largest online retailer in the world — is reportedly scouting for office space in Kendall Square and could be looking to hire as many as 150 employees there. If Amazon sets up a brick-and-mortar shop locally, that would mark its first physical presence in the state.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about this development with Boston Globe technology columnist Scott Kirsner, who broke the story online Thursday.

Scott Kirsner: It sounds like Amazon is trying to open something by Feb. 1, and I would imagine it would start pretty small, with a handful of engineers. But they're looking for enough space long-term – about 40,000 square feet in Kendall Square — that you could fit 100 to 150 employees. So this is not some small little branch office. This seems like it’s a pretty significant outpost for Amazon.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Why would Amazon want to come here? It’s based in Washington state, of course.

Yeah, founded in Seattle. I think the reason that they’d come to Cambridge is really all about talent. It’s about hiring research scientists who probably come out of MIT and Harvard, and also hiring software developers, which are, in many markets in the Bay Area and probably in Seattle, just hard to come by.

Up until now, anyone who wanted to work for Amazon basically had to go to Seattle. I imagine, then, that one benefit of having Amazon here is that all these Boston-area tech workers who are excited by the idea of working for an Amazon can stay here and do that, potentially.

Yeah, the upside of it is that there’s this big brand name that everyone knows. I mean, when you tell your spouse, you tell your mom, "Hey, I’m going to work for Amazon," they know what you’re doing as opposed to "I’m going to work for, you know, Acme startup" that they’ve never heard of. So it does have that upside. It’s a place for people if they want to have an impact that really is seen in a high-profile, positive light on the Internet. They can go work for Amazon but not have to move to Seattle.

That big-name aspect of Amazon that you just talked about — I was speaking earlier with Curt Nickisch, WBUR’s business and technology reporter, and he said he thought that if Boston had a wish list for the five big companies that it could get here, it would be Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. If and when Amazon comes here, we’ll have three of those big five. Does simply having Amazon here give Boston a sort of high-tech street cred, in a sense, that gets us more out from under the shadow of Silicon Valley?

Well, I think to have true street cred you need to be building your own anchor-tenant companies, like Amazons and Apples. We have some less well-known companies. TripAdvisor just started trading this week as its own company, the travel website.

That was founded here in Boston.

Yeah, founded out in Needham above a pizza shop. We have Akamai, we have EMC — some less well-known names. So I agree with Curt on the big five. It would be nice to see Facebook eventually have a presence here, just because there are some number of people that like, "Hey, I like that company, I’m interested in what they’re doing, I want to work on projects for them." And it’s nice to have a place for them to go in town without having to go to the West Coast.

We’ve been talking about all the upsides of Amazon coming. There is a downside, at least for consumers, which is that, right now, if you’re in Massachusetts and you buy an item on Amazon, you don’t pay sales tax. But Amazon is required to charge sales tax in any state in which it has a significant physical presence. So if Amazon comes here, do we suddenly start paying tax on our items that we buy on Amazon?

I think that’s true. But I also think one of the reasons that Amazon may be coming here is that they see federal legislation — there’s already a bill in the Senate — that would basically force every online retailer to charges sales tax in every state. So I think they see that on the horizon and they’re saying, hey, there’s no more penalty now for opening up an office in Massachusetts or New York or Texas or Florida, wherever we want to operate. So it’s an upside and a downside. We’ll likely wind up paying sales tax online for Amazon and everybody else in a year or two.

I assume that, in general, having Amazon come here is a good thing for the Boston economy?

It’s more jobs. It’s more of these high-paying, six-figure-type software development and research jobs. I don’t think there’s a glass-half-empty way to look at it, aside from this is not going to be a site where you have lots of $30-, $40-, $50,000-a-year jobs working in a warehouse or doing logistics stuff. And when I think about what the Massachusetts economy needs — and, unfortunately, I think what the whole casino thing was about — it's how do we create jobs for people who don’t have PhDs or master's in computer science?

So it's the highly trained, highly educated people who will most likely get these jobs?

Right, which every other Boston company, whether it’s Fidelity or whether it’s Wayfair, is trying to hire now. Everyone wants these software developers.

This program aired on December 22, 2011.


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