Every day, more and more businesses are making the leap into cyberspace. "Get wired or get creamed" is the new paradigm for vendors all over the planet. Books, clothing, and a multitude of other products are now being sold on the World Wide Web. And while there are valid economic reasons for pitching products online, I'm not rushing to buy into the concept.
Sure, electronic shopping offers speed and convenience only Superman could duplicate (assuming he could get hired as a sales clerk). But some of the most important elements of modern commerce can't be measured with a stopwatch or calculator. Marketplaces are cultural cornerstones, places where I meet friends, share information, and feel connected to the community.
I'm wary of technology that allows people to isolate themselves from the outside world. Automatic garage doors are a good example. Door goes up, car goes in, door goes down, and nobody has to say hello to the neighbors. I realize there are considerations that favor a homebound lifestyle, such as safety and privacy. But the search for quality merchandise usually involves some level of risk. The folks who braved the Silk Road knew it was no walk in the park.
A genuine shopping experience can't be achieved by staring at items on a video screen. Give me the mall, the factory outlet, swap meet, warehouse store, or farmers' market. I want the crowds, the noise, flustered families, and frantic cashiers. My ears crave intercom announcements that resonate with the spontaneous energy generated when supply meets demand: "Customer service at the bottle return! Manager's override at Checkstand 4! Wet cleanup in Aisle 7!"
Nobody surfing the Web will ever experience a blue-light special, double coupon savings, or an unadvertised markdown. They won't find the sale rack in a well-known outdoor retailer where I regularly snap up $40 chambray shirts that have been discounted to $14.
It makes me cringe to think that some day I'll be seeing TV and newspaper advertisements that say things like, "All the selection of our famous outdoor facility without the dust, the heat, and the constant haggling! Your destination for great deals is www.bzarre.istanbul.com!"
I'm especially discouraged by the notion of online grocery shopping. Supermarkets are like giant, societal radar screens that help me keep track of consumer quirks and product popularity. One mystery that has baffled me for years is the question of who is buying those marshmallow candies called circus peanuts. They sell briskly, yet I've never witnessed anyone actually eating them.
And it's impossible to put a monetary value on the personal relationships I've established while unloading my cart.
Larry, a part-time cashier at my favorite store, is a middle-school teacher during the week. Vijay, master of the express lane, is also a clerk at my bank branch. He always cashes checks for me with a smile and never asks for ID.
There are probably many people who detest shopping for the exact reasons I enjoy it. I've seen a few of them in line behind me, fuming, while I'm gabbing with Larry about class sizes and other educational issues.
So the universe of virtual vending will have no shortage of patrons, and that's fine with me. If enough customers decide to avoid the mall and click onto the Web, I'll have a better chance of finding a good parking place.