Online buying habits will ultimately shape our world

Saturday, July 08, 2017

The coming decade or decades in urban locales will be about people, not stuff. Millenials don’t want it, baby boomers are trying to get rid of it and the young can’t afford it – stuff, that is. The rejection of stuff in favor of friendship, experience and travel has implications for America’s downtowns and for shopping malls that survive the decline of retailing.

Amazon exists to sell stuff. The online retailing giant recently announced that it will pay nearly $14 billion to acquire the upscale Whole Foods grocery store chain. The impact of the sale for New Hampshire, at least in the short run, will be minimal. Whole Foods has just two stores in the state, in Manchester and Nashua, and some grocers, Hannaford’s for example, already allow customers to order online. For a small fee a clerk will select, price and bag purchases and have them ready for pickup, in some cases at curbside.

In the long run, this quest to combine stuff and convenience could change society. Some shoppers are content to order online and wait like cargo cultists of yore, for goods to magically arrive in brown or white trucks or eventually via driverless vehicle or drone. That sounds futuristic but it differs largely in delivery time from a century ago, when families ordered from a Sears catalog and waited weeks for the goods to arrive.

Some shoppers want to mingle with fellow citizens, encounter old friends and make new ones. They want to feel the fabric, smell the fruit or try on clothing. Physical stores have become rarer, yet Amazon, which made its name selling books online, has been opening brick and mortar bookstores where it can interact with customers and learn more about what they want. That quest for information about consumer shopping patterns is at least in part behind Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.

The Wall Street Journal’s business editor, Dennis Berman, summed it up succinctly. “Amazon is trying to become Walmart – not just an online megalith, but also a physical retail powerhouse with dynamic pricing and stocking strategies – faster than Walmart can become Amazon.”

Stores selling small necessities – who after all is going to order a tube of toothpaste online when they run out – and non-necessities will survive. Consumers can’t search the internet for products they don’t know they want and are perhaps less likely to buy on impulse. Such impulse buying is why stores force customers to navigate a labyrinth of shiny things to get to the register.

Compare that maddening experience to the sheer fun of shopping in Concord’s Saturday farmers market, which can be as much a social outing as a way to get groceries. Shopping online is isolating. Shopping in a physical marketplace and mingling with others builds community and feeds the soul.

Concord invested heavily to create a beautiful, people-friendly downtown which drew throngs for last month’s Market Day festival. Downtown is branching out and moving south. It will eventually boast one and perhaps two new entertainment venues and who knows what else. Bazaar-like marketplaces like chef Mario Batali’s Eataly emporiums in Boston and New York, which combine dining, shopping and socializing, have been a big success. The time may come when something similar, albeit more modest, opens in Concord. Our bet is that people, weary of shopping online and starved for human contact, would fill the place instead of waiting for a drone to deliver their sandwich.