Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Amazon Effect

A lead local story on a recent Monday morning TV newscast was about the closing and redevelopment of Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia. Word was already out about several Macy's store closings nationwide, including the one there, but this story confirmed the demise of the entire mall.  It will be replaced by a mixed use development including residential and retail and the sketches accompanying the story showed the trendy, somewhat boxy blend of glass and steel, open plazas, walkways, public art space, and other things described by developer buzz words.

The earlier national story about Macy's also predicted anticipated closings of many Sears, K-Mart and Kohls stores and the sale of the iconic Craftsman tool brand to competitor Stanley Black & Decker. Wait, weren't Stanley and
Black & Decker separate competing tool companies at one time?

So what's going on here?

The short, simple answer is that we're shopping online more than in stores. Does this trend only affect business models or is the impact broader than that?

Psychologists and sociologists are probably studying this topic and attempting to learn why and anticipate the impact. Boomers like me remember shopping 'adventures' to locally-owned downtown stores, then open air suburban malls with national chain stores and eventually the big malls we know now.

Some stores like Sears had a large mix of products. In fact their slogan at one time was "Sears has everything."  I worked at Sears in college in the 1970s and sold everything from suits to shoes to Christmas trees to bicycles to pool tables to small fishing boats.

Other stores were more specialized. One store for cards, another for music, another for each of the above-mentioned items available at Sears.

I 'discovered' Amazon several years ago and treated it as a convenient novelty. Now I do about 75% of my shopping on Amazon, from the convenience of my coffee table. I also regular buy clothes from the Macy's web site rather than their stores. Same thing for Eddie Bauer and LL Bean. Outlet malls are the only retail stores I've shopped at in the past year and only twice.  I shop Costco regularly but mostly for household stuff like paper towels. Food, wine and greeting cards are almost the only things I regularly buy at stores; those items can also be purchased online but that's where I've drawn my line in the sand. For now.

The effects of this shift to online shopping are added convenience, selection and product information and comparisons. But I wonder if another effect is the increase of our societal shift from face-to-face social interaction to device-driven social interaction. Many of us already spend more time with people on Facebook, Face Time, text, Twitter, Instagram and email than we do in person. Now we shop without direct human contact. Add automated call answering to that (when's the last time your call to a  business or doctor's office was answered by a live human?) and you have the potential for serious social isolation.

Psychologists and sociologists are probably studying that aspect of online shopping too.

What I call 'the Amazon effect' could lead to increased social isolation and human detachment or it could just be fueling a change in how we interact. Even though a lot of my own contact with friends and family is digital,
that method has helped me be in regular contact with a lot more people now than just a few years ago. That's a positive. In some ways texting or facebooking is a simpler, quicker way to catch up.

On the other hand, I've read many articles pointing out the positive benefits of real contact and the negative aspect of isolation. Touch is a powerful and positive connector. Every type of touch, from a handshake to a hug to love making, reinforces a biological need for physical contact. Does the 'Amazon effect' interfere with that?  Or does it just move us in a different direction on the biological scale?  Maybe time will tell.

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