Brett and Kate McKay at The Art of Manliness posted an interesting article this week entitled "Curbside Pickup and the End of Peak Consumerism". In it, Brett relates his experience in going into a grocery store for the first time since the start of the pandemic (they had been picking up their groceries at the store up to this point):
"After being away from in-store shopping for a while, I felt like I saw the store with fresh eyes. And what I was so strongly struck by, was just how full it was of absolute — and pardon my French, but this is really the most apt word here — bullsh*t food. Flamin’ Hot Funyuns, 3D Doritos, Twix-topped yogurt, Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies Cereal (which admittedly does sound really good). A dozen different kinds of Oreos. Endless varieties of soda and frozen dinners. Aisle after aisle of unnecessary, unhealthy, laboratory-created, market-tested, packaged products that could only be called food in the most generous sense."
From this beginning, McKay goes through a history of the shopping experience as developed in America, as it changed from only the purchase of necessities for the masses to the idea of shopping as an experience, driven largely by the peculiarly American invention the shopping mall.
What changed? Online shopping:
"Society’s shift towards online shopping, which began more than a decade ago, has exponentially accelerated during the pandemic. While prior to the coming of COVID, people had already converted to buying things like clothes online, many still held out on shopping for things like groceries at physical stores. Over the last year and half, however, more and more folks have started doing almost all their shopping digitally. Online grocery sales increased by more than 50% last year. While only 6.6% of major retailers offered the option of curbside pickup in early 2020, now more than half do. And 64% of respondents to a recent survey said they planned to order more online in the future."
As had been said on this site multiple times, I am not a shopper. I do not enjoy the shopping experience. Yes, I was a child of the 70's and 80's and once upon a time heading to the mall for a Friday night of mostly walking around (to be completely fair; teenagers in that era were notorious spendthrifts), but over time that feel away as I simply enjoyed the experience less and less. My shopping experience now is pretty tight circle of grocery store and used book stores, with lesser appearances in the Big Box Home Store, the Pet Store, and the Sporting Goods store.
But if I am completely thoughtful about it, I find myself in the same position as McKay describes more and more.
The Used Book Store chain is enjoyable, but they have what I am looking for less and less now. Yes, occasionally one can find a delightful surprise, but more often than not I leave with nothing, a development that would not have happened three years ago. It is far more easy to find exactly what I want on a site like Alibris, which has coupons and the ability to get points through Mypoints (and earn points on the Flight Credit Card, a triple win). For the Pet Store, I literally go in for one item now (filters for the fish tank), which I honestly could just as easily order online. The Sporting Goods store is the same - sports shoes I can get online and I suppose ammunition as well. Only the Grocery Store and the Big Box Home store still require me to go in, mostly from my inability to actually buy what I am supposed to get there (well, to be fair, rabbit supplies at the rabbit shelter, but in all fairness I am there anyway.
Clothing? Socks and undergarments are all ordered online anymore. The last time I went into a store for clothes was two years ago for a new suit (likely I will never need one again). There is no need anymore - especially with my change in business locations to my home - to dress for business anymore.
From this, the McKays derive the potential of declining consumerism:
"But a change in our consumption patterns may, happily, be one shift that proves both positive and enduring. It’s not as if corporations don’t have other ways, outside the in-person shopping experience, to entice us to buy their wares. But in a time where people discard the catalogs they receive in the mail without looking at them, block ads on websites, and watch television shows on ad-free streaming services, in-person shopping was one of the last fronts companies had, as Packard put it, to get people to buy things they don’t need and didn’t know they wanted. Thus, its decline may very well represent the death knell for the West’s entrenchment in excess consumerism."
Here, I think the McKays are doing some wishful thinking.
If you are like me and in any kind of area that people are in, your day is filled with delivery trucks driving by (and maybe, if you are my house, stopping as well): Fed Ex, UPS, USPS, Amazon. Online shopping and credit cards have made it much easier to shop than ever before - and credit cards have the added benefit for the retailer that one does not have to "have the cash on hand" to spend it. I would argue being able to buy something from anywhere just increases the ability of consumers to spend, not decreases it (and this does not cover things like the ability to buy things that purely exist in cyberspace, like upgrades for on-line games).
Sadly, the decline of consumerism still remains a personal choice.
But in all of this prediction of the downfall of consumerism and the rise of online-ism (You saw this word here first, folks), the McKays miss one critical point: the fate of those that work in the stores.
A decline in the use of stores, be it online or even with curbside delivery, ultimately means that those which are non-profitable will shut down. We have already seen this in many industries of course: There is no more video tape or DVD industry and movies theaters in some ways may be on their way out. Banks and insurance companies have shed the brick and mortar shells for online calls centers or even work from home options. Those stores and industries that depended on people coming to shop or dine or get their hair/nails/back done have all suffered.
When those jobs disappear - and they will disappear - semi-skilled job seekers will be left with a shrinking pool of jobs. Yes, online shopping means fulfillment and delivery jobs - but the push to automate these will continue to grow (think the robots in The Borg warehouse and automated delivery trucks; these are already being experimented with) and the stories one hears of available jobs like warehouse worker and delivery driver are none too enchanting. Perhaps one might think of things like grocery stores that convert to only curbside pickup - but if you have been in a grocery store lately, you have seen these workers as well: individuals with a phone in hand wandering with a cart or rolling rack, picking things up and rolling them through.
It is hardly the future of The Jetsons.
This trend will not be stopped by anything other than a total collapse (or total war, I suppose): the convenience of not going in to shop has now become rooted in our psyche and shopping as an experience continues to shrink, not expand. But it strikes me that even as we see this trend developing we are doing precisely nothing to address it. We face the very real specter - who can tell when it arrives - of millions that are effectively no longer employable without significant investment, not only by things like schools and trades and government, but by themselves in their own lives.
I am not arguing for consumerism and shopping for the sake of employment. But I do not think we can somehow pretend that the long term impact of all of this is not as glowing as what the McKays posit.