business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

A refrain we hear frequently here on MNB - not from everyone, but from a coterie of MNB readers - is that one of the real problems with e-commerce is that it creates a population of anti-social customers who are too lazy to leave their houses, go shopping, and interact with other people.

I've never agreed with this characterization. I think there are some people who will take advantage of online options to be anti-social. Quite frankly, I think they'd probably be anti-social, anyway.

But there were two stories in recent days that I think spoke to the alternative view - that e-commerce actually can empower people to live better, happier more fulfilled lives. (To be clear, e-commerce doesn't create better, happier, more fulfilled people. They have to do that themselves. But it can open the window...)

One story was in the New York Times, and it didn't even focus on e-commerce. Rather, it was about a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and concluded that "spending money to save time may reduce stress about the limited time in the day, thereby improving happiness ... For greater life satisfaction, according to the study, order takeout food, take a cab or pay someone to run an errand. This was found to be true regardless of income."

Go figure. Maybe money actually can buy happiness.

To be sure, the story concedes that some people find it easier to hire people to do these things than others. But there is another implication, I think - that in many ways, e-commerce democratizes the ability to outsource certain tasks; Amazon, after all, is not a service reserved for the affluent.

Which brings me to the second story, in Forbes:

"The answer to whether Amazon makes us all richer or not is obvious--yes, it does, without a doubt," the story says. "Things get a little trickier when we try to think about how it makes us richer. That things are cheaper when we buy them from Amazon, at least sometimes they are, does indeed make us richer. We've now got whatever piece of electronic tat it is that we wanted and we've also got some money left over: we're richer. However, there's a second effect which is a little harder to calculate. That Amazon is cheaper than many other retailers means that prices at all other retailers have been competed down."

But it is more than just money.

The Forbes piece references research from economist Michael Mandel, who "has offered up an intriguing third manner in which Amazon makes us richer. We're richer in time as a result of its existence. And we should note that time is the only truly non-renewable resource that we have." Mandel also says that e-commerce enables US households to save a total of 64 million hours a week ... hours, I've long argued, allow us to do things like cook, jog, play tennis or golf, play with our kids, coach Little League, read a book, watch a movie, take a walk with a spouse, or hundreds of other things that have nothing to do with shopping.

This is not to suggest that all shopping in physical stores is a waste of time. Far from it.

But I would submit that there is no moral superiority to be ascribed to people who go to physical stores. And it is up to bricks-and-mortar retailers to make sure that their stores are compelling, experiential, relevant and resonant, reflective of a core value proposition that people can't find elsewhere.

In other words, they have to make sure that for whatever the reason, their stores are Eye-Openers.
KC's View: