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May 10, 2017

Online shopping may be easy, but retail stores are feeling the effects

(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

This past weekend, I spent the Easter holiday with my roommate and her family. Going back to her hometown, my friend was excited to drive me around and show me the landmarks of her childhood, pointing out her high school, the houses of noteworthy friends, her favorite places to go for a run and the diner with the best breakfast sandwiches.

As our tour was wrapping up and we were heading back to her house, we passed through a large shopping center and my enthusiastic guide quickly gave me the lowdown: This large development filled with department stores and other shops had recently been bought out and will soon be either completely remodeled or demolished, making way for more housing.

Passing through the shopping center, it wasn’t hard to see why a change was needed. The massive parking lot was mostly vacant, even on a Saturday afternoon, and many storefronts were empty as the companies had gone out of business.

But while this may seem like an isolated case, similar deteriorations of retail as we know it can be found all over the country. The shopping center in my friend’s town clearly resembled a mall near my home two states away, which was once a place of bustling activity and economic growth, but is now simply a large building with more empty stores than full ones.

And this trend is not likely to end anytime soon. On Saturday, The New York Times published an article outlining the “broad restructuring in the American retail industry” that has been centered around a shift toward online shopping, otherwise known as e-commerce, and away from traditional retail stores. The article continues to claim that while this shift has been going on gradually for years, there has been a recent spike in e-commerce, and traditional retail may never fully recover.

On the surface, this shift to online shopping seems positive. My roommate, the very same one who was driving me through a practically deserted shopping center four days ago, also happened to recently go on a shopping spree. Old Navy was having a blowout sale and she bought discounted shirts and dresses from the comfort of her bed, had them delivered to our room less than a week later and just sent back the items that didn’t fit. As college students with limited transportation abilities, how could it possibly be more convenient?

But that isn’t to say that the convenience of e-commerce won’t eventually lead to consequences. The store closings we have seen thus far are only the tip of the iceberg, as America is “on pace this year to eclipse the number of stores that closed in the depths of the Great Recession of 2008.” This isn’t just a problem for the one out of every 10 Americans that work in retail, it’s one that will impact the economy and the nation as a whole.

Now, I do rely on the expediency of e-commerce for buying certain things, such as textbooks, which I can order after the first day of class on Monday and get in the mail in time for class on Wednesday, but there are many things that I pretty firmly refuse to buy online.

Perhaps some of that refusal is rooted in nostalgia. After all, I am an English major who would rather buy 13 paperback books for the semester, sometimes lugging three or four in my backpack at a time, than buy a Kindle. Likewise, I am also someone who would rather drive to a store and peruse their more limited selection of shoes and risk not finding the pair I want in my size or desired color, than simply ordering the shoes online from a larger selection.

However, although I am a sucker for nostalgia, there is more to my preference for traditional retail than that.

Let’s say that the shoe store does have the pair that I want in my size and desired color, but I try them on and realize that they’re uncomfortable. I could easily go through five or six pairs of shoes before finding ones I actually like, and they might be drastically different from what I initially had in mind. Sure, that entire process could have been handled online and I could have just sent back the pairs that I didn’t want, but it goes without saying that that isn’t the timeliest or most environmentally efficient way to go about it.

And besides that, when losing traditional retail stores you are losing the experience of going to a retail store, which is an experience that many people enjoy. Maybe you are unsure how to determine the perfect fit and need the more expert opinion of an employee of the company, or maybe you’re a senior in high school buying your prom dress and you want to try on 100 dresses before deciding on the perfect one.

Going to a traditional retail store is obviously not the most efficient way to shop in all scenarios and for all items, but that doesn’t mean that retail is obsolete. While there are benefits to online shopping, and the growth of e-commerce is not likely to slow down anytime soon, we should continue to support traditional retailers as well. Thousands of jobs, in addition to priceless experiences, depend on it.

Tess Halpern is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at tjhalpern@umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “Online shopping may be easy, but retail stores are feeling the effects”
  1. Peter says:

    Your nostalgia is misguided. 80% of retail space in the US could close and we would have the same square footage per person as the UK. The retail store is not obsolete, the retail store is over built. Years of cheap credit with low interest allowed these companies to take on massive debt in which they expanded their number of stores with. Now that the debt has to be paid back they realize they don’t have any customers to fill those millions of square feet of stores.

    There is no retail apocalypse, there is a culling of the unhealthy and the sick.

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