New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante had a piece over the weekend that examined the social and cultural impact of e-commerce, and she was not encouraged.
The title of the column: "What We Lose by Hiring Someone to Pick Up Our Avocados for Us."
"The incursion of technology into every aspect of consumption has meant that only the indolent or pathologically tolerant wait for things.
"Starbucks seems to prioritize mobile orders. So if you choose to order in person, you might find yourself walking straight to the cashier and then lingering for a bafflingly long time as one drink after another — none of them yours — lands in the mobile pickup area, waiting for whatever very busy person made an advance purchase he is late to claim.
"At the same time that physical retail culture remains ostensibly in crisis, it seems to create fewer reasons to engage with it."
Bellafante goes on:
"The act of turning grocery shopping into an occupation threatens something larger — we are losing a way to bridge differences in a world already collapsing from its stratification. The guy who walks into a Starbucks to pick up his pre-ordered flat white as he conference calls into his AirPods doesn’t have to exchange a single word with the worker behind the counter or really even acknowledge her. He grabs his drink and gets on with it."
She doesn't argue that e-commerce is all bad; she acknowledges that it can be useful for those who are "housebound, to single parents, to others paralyzingly constrained by time." But she also suggests that e-commerce is turning us into a nation in which basic socialization takes place less often, which is not for the better.
You can read the entire column here.
- KC's View:
I'm normally a big fan of Bellafante's columns, but I think in this one she falls into the trap of assuming that most people engaged in mobile ordering and e-commerce are disconnecting from the world. I don't think that's true. In my local Starbucks, where I go maybe a couple of times a week, I almost always order via the app … but I also almost always engage the baristas and workers in conversation, chat with other customers, and sort of view it as a place far more social than where I work (which is out of my home, where it generally is just me and the dogs).
There's also another reality that she ignores - that for a lot of people, the time saved using e-commerce gives them the time to play with their kids, go for a walk, read a book, take a jog … or do numerous other things that, frankly, are more rewarding than walking up and down the aisles of many stores. (Unless, of course, the store is one that is compelling and differentiated.)
Now, this isn't everyone. Some e-commerce users are just lazy and disconnected from other people. But it isn't a simple construct, and I think this needs to be acknowledged.
This would, by the way, be a great ad campaign for Amazon - if they could somehow figure out how to quantify how many hours of boring, traditional shopping it has saved people, and then qualify how they were able to use those hours in more uplifting and fulfilling pursuits, it would be a really good commercial that might blunt some of the criticisms it gets.
Just a thought. (Maybe for next year's Super Bowl…?)