Big Empty Boxes

Just in case you missed it, Slate published an interesting article about a new Amazon strategy that could turn the remaining big box stores into empty boxes. After a decade of placing warehouses in far-off places, Amazon is investing more than $1 billion in warehouses near large population centers, near New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC, with up to ten warehouses in California, and more. With warehouses so close to large numbers of customers, Amazon will likely offer next day delivery for very low prices, and, perhaps most intriguing, delivery within just a few hours of online purchase. That’s the part that makes me wonder about the future of visiting, say, Staples or Best Buy, or, for that matter, my local supermarket. The term “complete domination of the retail industry” comes to mind.

Sure, it’s the natural evolution of business. The local hardware store is eliminated by Home Depot, and a few decades later, Home Depot is eliminated by an online service that requires no retail presence at all. Yes, it’s dismaying to see empty retail stores. And yes, it’s pretty cool to see the iPad that you ordered at 11AM in your mailbox at 4PM the same day. It’s consolidation. It’s progress. And along the way, we eliminate some local jobs, become cozier with a 24/7 consuming lifestyle, and lose just a bit of social interaction. I don’t know if any of this is good or bad or something else entirely, but I’m pretty sure we all ought to be discussing these ideas and what they mean. There’s something distinctly creepy about just having things happen to us, to lose little bits of our towns and our stores to a high-efficiency corporation reliant upon new forms of robots to do the pick-and-pack. In time, I suspect deliveries will be made not by men and women wearing UPS uniforms, but logistical robots who drive better, don’t get lost, and know what time you’re scheduled to be home so the delivery can be made “in person.”

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