I am about to buy a butter dish. Our previous butter dish shattered in fragments on the kitchen floor yesterday. Our new one will be like the last one—plain white, oblong, utterly generic, and as cheap as I can get it.
And as easy as I can get it. Do you know what that means? Hint: name of mighty South American river.
If I were to use a brick-and-mortar store, I’d get in my car and drive two towns over to Bed Bath & Beyond, an errand of maybe an hour. Fifteen years ago that wouldn’t have bothered me, because I’d have had no option. But options alter our decisional logic. Why spend that hour chasing a butter dish when I can spend it getting work done—paid work—or emailing friends, or making inroads on an ever-daunting pile of household repairs? Life is short, time is money: such maxims frame that hour’s errand as a waste of time and recommend the convenient thing instead. Grab mouse, click, we’re done.
The topic, then, is convenience, and where it takes us—most often, these days, to the mighty river of Amazon. I’m going to gather my courage and assay the totality of my family’s commerce on the mighty river. It’s easy—of course!—to do this: just click on the “orders” tab. And voilà, fifty-seven orders by the Coopers in the last six months. Our purchases range from the practical to the fanciful: inkjet cartridges; shoe heel lifts (to even out my uneven legs); a pet gate; winter gloves; a pasta-making machine; a vacuum cleaner and replacement bags; a silicon keyboard cover for our daughter’s laptop; a 2018 calendar datebook; winter boots for her; an “I Love Bulldogs” tee shirt; the complete Jonny Quest video collection; a six-pack of Tiptree of London brown sauce; a vapor lamp, digital laser thermometer gun, and other items relating to our recent acquisition of a pet tortoise. And a whole slew of books and CDs. The total six-month Cooper outlay in Bezos-land? $1,472.
The prevalence of books among our purchases highlights the fact, now all but forgotten, that Amazon started as a bookstore. Back then, investors who threw money at the company, despite year after year of its failing to turn a profit, clearly saw what was coming—that it would eventually morph into an everything store; that Amazon’s future lay not in bringing this or that good to market, but rather in becoming the market. From the individual consumer’s point of view, the capstone innovation in accomplishing this dominance was Amazon Prime. For an annual fee, Prime offers all sorts of premium services—including streaming videos and original programming, which my family uses hardly or not at all, though plenty of other people do.
Yet two of those premium services are crucial: simplified, no-cost returns; and two-day delivery. These seemingly innocuous policies have proved to be game-changers, taking convenience to a whole new level. Online purchasing, in which you can’t touch or try on anything, inevitably incurs a higher proportion of returns than onsite purchasing; and the chore of packaging, addressing, and paying for those returns proved a stumbling block for many. Amazon Prime took care of that: you reuse the package the item came in; you zap out a mailing label on your printer; and you send the thing back—for free. Removing these nagging impediments smoothed the purchasing process, a major uptick in convenience.
But the second innovation—two-day delivery—is the subtler and more insidious one. To grasp its power, you have to view a commercial transaction not merely as a rational economic event, but a psychological one. There turns out to be big difference between buying something you expect to come in about ten days, and buying something you know will be here the day after tomorrow. It’s all about the delay. Online retailers have grasped that any undue pause between our readiness to buy and the arrival of the purchase exerts a dampening effect on consumer ardor. Amazon Prime removes that awkward emptio interrupta, allowing the consumer to proceed quickly from arousal to consummation. That excitement feeds back into the transactional loop and ramps up the willingness to buy. Convenience, in other words, not only caters to instant gratification, but provokes it. What results is the kind of Amazon order list I disclosed above. Replicated in millions of households across the country, that list tolls the death knell for physical stores. Think of how many places I would have visited to track down all that stuff. The transformative effect of digital commerce has taken a while to register, but what’s upon us is a tsunami of brick-and-mortar closures. If I were to drive out to that Bed, Bath & Beyond, I’d pass the Sears that has closed (200,000 jobs and $26 billion in market value lost in a decade), the Toys R Us that is about to close (200 stores, 30,000 jobs), and any number of other enterprises, once thought impervious, that are now endangered—gods of retail brought to their knees by online trade. Of course, other businesses may well move into those locations. Amazon itself, meanwhile, has generated a lot of new jobs—warehouse jobs, not retail jobs, but jobs all the same. Change is the rule of modern life, a constant churn driven by globalization, technological transformation, and the relentless concentration of retail business in ever-larger and more remote corporate entities.