More than just a place to buy things

By Francisco Dao , written on November 6, 2012

From The News Desk

When I was around 10 years old I used to love going to the supermarket with my mother. I was a latchkey kid, so it was a treat both to spend time with her and get out of the house on a weeknight. My mom always shopped on weeknights to avoid the crowds. As I got older and became an unruly teenager, our relationship grew more strained, so those evenings I spent pushing her shopping cart down the aisles at the market will always have a special place in my memory. It seems like a trivial thing, buying groceries with mom, but as shopping increasingly moves online, it’s one more thing that will likely slip away.

The technology crowd loves to revel in the decline of brick-and-mortar stores, as if we were watching the fall of the Berlin wall. We say things like, “they deserve to fail” and point to the struggles of Best Buy and bankrupt retailers such as Borders as proof that selling things via the Internet is superior in every way. While I try to avoid the schadenfreude, I admit I’ve engaged in plenty of “showrooming” and consider myself an Amazon fan.

But the rise of Internet retailing is not just a matter of saving money. As with most economic shifts, there are side effects that go far beyond the obvious winners and losers of who’s selling what to whom. And as more and more retailing moves online, the biggest casualties may not be Best Buy or Circuit City, but our communities and perhaps even the relationships we share with one another.

To get a glimpse of how ecommerce affects communities, we need only look at Walmart. For the past couple of decades we’ve watched how the arrival of Walmart in small towns has often resulted in the bankrupting of local businesses and, many would say, the gutting of those communities. Much like online retailers, Walmart’s defense is to argue that they offer lower prices and a better selection to the consumer. While this argument is well supported, it doesn’t change the fact that many towns have lost their base of local businesses and the sense of community that once surrounded Main Street.

For many people, stores are a place for them to interact, a destination where you can take your kids or run into your neighbors. Even an impersonal corporate supermarket like the one where my mother shopped is still a place where she and I spent time together. Whatever Walmart takes from the communities it enters, at least it is still a physical place that employs the local population. While its fluorescent lit aisles may not be as pleasant as the small town store, they still provide a location for people to meet. The Internet provides neither local employment nor a physical presence to replace the stores that it renders unprofitable, and as such, the shift to ecommerce poses a threat to communities on a scale far greater than Walmart ever has.

I’m not arguing for the demise of Amazon or online shopping. As I mentioned, I’m a fan. But I do wonder with concern what will happen to our communities when the stores are gone. What will become of those trips to the store that kids take with their parents? With no more physical bookstores, will father/daughter night at Barnes and Noble be replaced with dads forgoing that time with their kids in favor of giving them access to one click Amazon purchases?

Many will argue that you don’t need physical stores in order to have a relationship with your family or build a community. On its face, this is obviously true. But from a practical standpoint, stores and malls are where we spend our time. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the trend of younger generations seeking attention on the Web in part due to a lack of attention paid to them by their parents. I wonder how many hours of time a kid today no longer spends with her parents because there are no more trips to mall. What choices for interaction do they really have when the physical world around them is fading into bankruptcy?

I realize the survival of brick-and-mortar stores isn’t the concern of technology entrepreneurs. The development of the Internet created a new platform for commerce, and this is the natural progression of business. But instead of blindly cheering like an angry mob for the misfortune of physical retailers, we should think about what it really means for our communities. Physical stores are much more than just a place to buy things. They are a place to meet, a place to go, and often the anchor of a neighborhood. For me, they were the place where I have some of the fondest memories of spending time with my mother, and ecommerce, no matter how cheap or convenient, can never replace that time well spent.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]