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The Monitor's View

Before the shopping drone arrives

Buying things is becoming faster and easier thanks to the Internet. But wise shopping is still a human art.

By the Monitor’s Editorial Board / December 2, 2013

A worker packs completed orders into boxes at the Amazon fulfilment center in Peterborough in central England Nov. 28. The center was preparing for Cyber Monday, considered the busiest day for online shopping.

Phil Noble/Reuters

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With Thanksgiving and Christmas just 27 days apart this year (the minimum possible) retailers have been more eager than ever to entice shoppers to buy their wares.

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For the first time many stores opened on the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Low prices and special deals lured shoppers out to big-box chain stores on Black Friday and to local businesses on Small Business Saturday. The Thanksgiving shopping frenzy ended with those seeking online deals on Cyber Monday.

The nation’s retailers count on a big leap in sales in November and December to end the year with a positive bottom line. Strong retail sales form part of a solid overall economy.

But one shopper, quoted in USA Today, said she had tried shopping on Thanksgiving Day and didn’t like it. “It took the fun out of everything,” she said. “Let’s get through Thanksgiving and [then] enjoy Christmas for what it is.”

That seems like a great idea. One need not be religious to find Thanksgiving a day to break away from frantic commerce and spend precious free hours with loved ones, or just quietly to be grateful for the good in one’s life, or to help those in need.

Actually, the growing ease of online shopping is making the concept of setting aside special “shopping days” an anachronism. Shopping is a 24/7, every-day-of-the-year possibility for anyone with online access and a credit card. No longer is a day off from school or work, such as the day after Thanksgiving, needed to shop. Many people already buy even the most mundane of products, from deodorant to trash bags, online from companies such as Amazon.

Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos scored a public relations coup when he announced Sunday on the CBS television show “60 Minutes” that delivery of goods to customers using small drone aircraft may only be a few years off. As he envisions it small autonomous “octocopters” would bring packages of as much as five pounds to customers within 30 minutes of their order in urban areas, reminding some of a real-life version of the aerial aid packages floated down to contestants in the "Hunger Games” books and movie series.

Just as with Google’s concept of driverless vehicles, skeptics quickly pointed out the problems with delivery by octocopter, from packages that could easily be intercepted on their way to their destination to how Amazon would be able to make sure the drone delivered to the correct person.

But already Amazon is planning to expand delivery (by conventional means) into Sundays, and it is constantly exploring other ways to make the time between placing an order online and receiving the physical object as short as possible. What Mr. Bezos and Amazon have already accomplished will seem nothing short of miraculous to many, so we’d be wise not to dismiss too quickly the idea that the octocopter, or something like it, will appear someday.

As shopping takes less and less physical effort, with no need to travel to a bricks-and-mortar store, the very convenience of the act may ask more mental effort of us. Is this a wise purchase? Will it provide a real benefit to me or the person I plan to give it to? Are physical gifts the only kind worth giving at the holiday season?

Technology is changing the way we shop, but it’s leaving the answers to the most important shopping questions to us.

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