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March 22, 2010

Save Your Town from the Robot Armies

Think twice before buying online rather than from your local store

A friend who owns an independent bookstore was recently telling me about a disturbing trend where people go into her store, browse titles, read a few pages, and then go order it from Amazon, all to save whatever you save by shopping on line.

I told her that I actually do the opposite. If I see a book that interests me, I read the customer reviews online, then I call my local store, Leopold’s, and order it. Yes, it’s slower, but I’m usually already in the middle of another book, so I have time. It costs more too but I actually like doing my part to help keep the lights on, maybe helping them enough so they can hire some nerdy kid who likes books.

You might think your town is different than mine. After all, I live in downtown Detroit and your community is doing so much better than that. Listen to those birds chirping! Look at that line at the coffee shop! It’s nothing like downtown Detroit where, as we all know, great economic changes have wrought a massive Godzilla-scale beat down. But if you think that can’t happen to you, lemme tell you, it can.

It has been, what, fifteen years since the internet started changing everything? And thanks to it we now have a lot of convenience (click!) and a lot of social networking (poke!) and a lot of information (forward!) yet instead of making us happier we are living in a woefully insecure society where very few models are actually sustainable.

Just to take one small example, I usually watch 30 Rock on Hulu, which isn’t generally considered to be anything near a viable business model. If I happen to be home, I watch 30 Rock on NBC, which is losing money faster than a spastic drunk at a casino. NBC was just bought by Comcast, the cable giant whose entire mega-profitable empire, I just learned from The Atlantic, is seriously threatened by things like, oh, Hulu.

The only ones who are winning right now are the robots. The almost completely computerized and automated iTunes, Netflix and Amazon are all making serious bank. And I can get 30 Rock episodes from each of them. But I can’t get it at my video store anymore because my video store is closed. Which is kind of my point. I liked those guys. Sure, one of them was a little creepy, but at least he had a job. I mean, where do the creepy guys go when they lose their jobs? What do they do? Do I want to know? (No, I don’t want to know. Let’s just give him a job.)

Every holiday season more and more people do all their shopping online, forcing more local stores out of business and local unemployment goes up and then, lo and behold, next Christmas nobody has as much money. The whole thing is either a reverse engineered ponzi scheme or a losing game of three-card monte or it’s just the end of Reservoir Dogs where they all shoot one another dead.

So can we maybe just slow it down a little? As spring arrives and we embrace the slow food movement and plant our gardens and tend to our bees, I would also like to propose we think about slow shopping too. Walk into a store and browse. It will take more time, but by making it a bit more difficult you’ll actually wind up spending less money, thusly saving more than you would have if you had shopped on-line.

I’m not saying the Internet is evil, far from it, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing (Hi Arianna!) and if you need a book fast then, sure, by all means, go buy it on-line at bn.com. But if there’s a place near you where you can go support your community, then stop on by there instead. Make the effort. Yes, you might pay more, but a lot of the extra money you’re paying in local taxes goes to filling in your potholes and paying for someone to watch your kids cross the street. Businesses survive on wafer thin margins, one more customer going and shopping at a store can actually make a big difference.

Seriously, you might feel savvy buying those shoes from Zapatos but in the long run you’re really not. The phrase “free shipping” is really just like crack cocaine, it’s cheap, it’s addictive and, in the end, it will cause the same horrible destruction in your community.

If you really want to know what is going to happen if you keep sending your money to support those distant acres of automated warehouses, come visit Detroit and take a look around. You’ll see parts of town that look exactly like that burned out futuristic landscape from The Terminator. You know, that’s the movie where the robots won.

Reprinted from the Huffington Post