Societal goals: avoiding society through online shopping

The comic Take It From the Tinkersons recently had a strip hinting at a major consequence of online shopping:

While this might be a bit of hyperbole, there is some truth to this. Is one of the appeals of online shopping the ability to avoid society and social interactions? Even shopping at your local big box store requires rubbing shoulders with other shoppers and a brief interaction with a cashier (even with self-checkout, you still have an overseer).

At the least, online shopping provides evidence of the significant shift that happened in Western societies in the last few hundred years. The earliest sociologists were very interested in the switch from tight-knit village or agrarian life to the less connected and varied urban life. Marx saw tremendous consequences for labor and the individual within an economic system rooted in burgeoning cities. Durkheim compared mechanical and organic solidarity, a shift toward a complex division of labor where individuals now depended on others to do essential tasks for their lives. Tonnies contrasted gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, more direct social interactions versus indirect social interactions.

Online shopping of the sorts we have today may only be possible in a highly complex and individualized society such as our own. The process of moving a product from its production point to a warehouse to your home or business through online clicks is quite complicated and amazing. Yet, it really does limit social interactions on the shopping end. As private individuals, we can now make choices and receive our products away from scrutiny. It would be an error to think that this private purchase is now removed from social influence – with the spread of media and influence of social media, we may be influenced by generalized social pressures more than ever – but the direct social experience is gone.

This could have big implications for social life. Will buying habits significantly change now that immediate social interactions and social pressure is removed? Will we become used to such social transactions not involving people that we will be willing to remove social interactions from other areas? There will certainly be consequences of increasing online shopping and public life – even if it is related to individuals consuming products in a capitalistic system – may just suffer for it.

 

Adaptations to Walmart leaving communities

Joel Kotkin considers the fate of smaller communities where Walmart has decided to close stores:

None of this suggests that the retreat of big boxes from smaller towns and some urban areas will be painless. Yet those who see this trend as the harbinger of the end of malls or Main Streets may be in for a surprise. Rather than die off, bricks-and-mortar shopping will change, adding new elements and moving from ever greater uniformity to more variety and differentiation, which are critical to independent business’s survival. Much of this change will take place in small towns, but also in suburban areas, which have long been the happy hunting ground of big boxes.

Why not in the big cities? One of the chief ironies of our times is that chains and their attendant sameness now define much of our most sophisticated urban core—Starbucks on every corner, global brands and restaurants serving the same trendy cuisine. The recovery of large cities, suggests New York researcher Sharon Zukin, has also made them more alike by “bringing in the same development ideas—and the same conspicuous textual allusions and iconic corporate logos inevitably affixed to downtown architectural trophies—to cities across the globe.” Efforts to make the city “safer and less strange to outsiders’ eyes”—tourists, expatriates, media producers, and affluent consumers—are making one global city barely indistinguishable from another…

Some small towns—and suburbs even more so—will be transformed by immigrants and millennials, who may want to set up their own unique shops along the very Main Streets once targeted by firms like Walmart. In wealthier communities, this may mean more boutiques and high-end restaurants. But among less affluent areas, other institutions, such as cooperatives—300 already nationwide and another 250 on the way, as well as farmers markets—could provide some of the products that many once found at Walmart…

As the retail world become more digitally focused, and less big-box-dominated, there is a golden opportunity to restore the geographic and local diversity that has seemed doomed for nearly a half-century, but now may enjoy a new burst of life.

There is little doubt that the retail industry will continue to change. Walmart and other large corporations may seem inevitable today but they didn’t exist decades ago and may not have much presence in the future. Yet, Kotkin seems pretty optimistic about online retail which requires its own set of adjustments as well as infrastructure that could be threatened in the future.

For small towns and many suburbs, do these future changes leave much space for residents themselves to create and experience local differences? On one hand, online retail offers customization yet relies on large companies located elsewhere and on the other hand, local diversity in things like restaurants and small stores draws upon local entrepreneurs. Is the secret to promote an experienced based consumption – local culture and food – as opposed to decades of goods based consumption?

Observed in Manhattan: online shopping leads to more traffic

A graduate student in Manhattan argues that more online shopping leads to more traffic issues on the dense island:

Consider it this way: people around the world seem to have a travel time budget of a little over an hour each day. Before the rise of e-commerce, part of that time would have been spent in the service of purchasing goods. But if that budget remains fixed, then people today may simply buy something online, then hop in a car and go visit a friend across town. In that scenario, personal travel stays constant while commercial travel increases — a net gain of people and goods on the road…

Woodard’s case studies of the Gehry and three other residential apartments in Manhattan found the answer to those questions may very well be yes. Surveying the buildings for several hours at a time in the middle of the day, Woodard found that, on average, delivery trucks stayed parked for 21 minutes at a time, and two-thirds of them were double-parked. Extrapolating the data over a full day, in the case of the Gehry, that means delivery trucks alone occupy road space that’s not a true parking space for seven full hours…

Though Woodard’s case studies were never supposed to paint an exhaustive portrait of the urban e-commerce problem, they do underscore how little is known about it. One study from way back in 2004 estimated that delivery trucks cause nearly a million hours of vehicle delay each year, but the stunning grown in online shopping since then (and the fact that companies like Amazon are reluctant to release their data) makes any precise estimate difficult. Many experts consider this process of moving freight that final mile to be one of the biggest forgotten problems facing modern cities.

At the core of the problem is street parking. In a dense urban area like Manhattan, where few buildings have the luxury of freight docks or loading zones, delivery trucks have little choice but to park at the curb. That leaves passenger vehicles and delivery trucks to duke it out for precious street-parking space, which in turn leads to double-parking, which in turn leads to general congestion.

Interesting question and findings. How much do they apply beyond Manhattan, a dense place?

One issue not addressed here: how much do commerce companies bear responsibility for this congestion? Shopping online is often viewed as cheaper and more convenient but this analysis suggests there are some hidden costs that someone has to pay for. Roads are public goods paid for with tax dollars. If they are causing more congestion, could they bear some of this cost?