There is a lot of buzz this year about the rise and rise of online shopping. E-retail giants like Yahoo Shopping and Amazon.com have already broken season al sales records, and the air is ringing with merry predictions that this holiday period will see the world’s first online-retail profits.
Wait. How can that be? If e-commerce is so huge, how come it has not been profitable already? The answer, of course, is simple: It is not that huge, after all — not yet, anyway. Growing, yes, but universal? Not by a long shot. Everybody shops, but of the whole global sea of shoppers, only a small proportion shops online, and of that tiny pool of trendsetters, only a positively minuscule proportion has dipped its toes into anything besides books, music and maybe videos, e-commercially speaking.
That is why the retail dot-coms are keeping their fingers crossed ahead of this quarter’s returns. This is being touted as their breakthrough season, but they are quite aware that in the big picture of global commerce, they are still no more than, well, a dot. A succinct reminder that skepticism is still in order was offered late last month by a Merrill Lynch Internet analyst with the wonderfully sobering name of Mr. Henry Blodget. On hearing that Lycos and Yahoo! had just recorded their strongest online shopping days to date, Mr. Blodget said coldly, “We do not regard this information as particularly meaningful.”
The buzz, then, is slightly out of sync with reality, as it often is, since it is generated by people who have a vested interest in swanning about on the cutting edge, i.e., we, the media. How many newspapers — and how much advertising space — can you sell if you are still telling yesterday’s stories? The trick is to tell tomorrow’s story as if it really were today’s; sometimes it even becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell enough people that everyone else is shopping at home in their pajamas this year, and if one out of 100 of them fall for it, you actually have a trend.
Then you can start a debate. This is great fun for the media, and for the pundits and prophets who are kept by the media, because it generates even more column inches and viewer minutes as the topic blossoms from a business story into a “lifestyle” story. E-commerce has proven particularly fruitful in this respect. Everyone and his dog has been holding forth in recent weeks on the pros and the cons — the rich rewards in terms of choice and convenience and the dire spiritual and/or cultural consequences — of shopping from home.
Interestingly, proponents and opponents alike seem to agree that e-commerce represents a death warrant for what one commentator called “real” shopping — “as we’ll some day quaintly remember it.” Like many others (mostly ladies), this gentleman was repelled by the looming vision of a world in which everyone stays at home, “avoiding people who don’t look like us, who don’t occupy the same demographic niche, who don’t click on the same things we do” — the silent, bloodless, depopulated world of cyberspace. Others (mostly, we are sorry to say, gentlemen), see the same vision, and can’t wait to get in it. But hardly anybody seems to doubt that a new world is at hand.
Well, as the tired shopper said, we’re not buying it. Where is the law that says every new trend must be an all-or-nothing thing? Mail-order catalogs arrived and prospered not so long ago, as did home-shopping TV networks a few years later, but the stores stayed in business. Little stores that went out of business were generally done in by bigger stores, not by “other-media” shopping. The fact is, there are people who like to shop and people who don’t. The people who do will likely shop anywhere, any way, in Ginza or online, as their mood or need dictates. The people who don’t will still get their spouses or partners to do it, by new means or old.
Virtual shopping, in short, is not about to sweep away the world of real shopping; it is surely destined to parallel it, with pluses and minuses of its own. Some days, as the brave or curious few are already discovering, the e-mall will be a godsend. Other days, though, even online addicts will be overcome by the urge to set out on a full-dress live-shopping expedition, complete with crowds, piped music, coffee breaks and loads of giant paper bags.
E-commerce was as inevitable a phenomenon as the sun coming up. It seems clear that it is here to stay and grow; if it doesn’t turn a profit this quarter, it will in the next, or the one after that. In the meantime, shop where you want. What’s to argue about?
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