You, me and Amazon

Online shopping has changed the lifestyle pattern of Canadian seniors.

I’m afraid of Amazon. Aren’t you? It’s not that older adults haven’t adjusted to the new world of online retail shopping, it’s that we’ve adjusted all too well.

But what could be scary about shopping from the comfort of your home? Day and night you can browse, place orders, hold items in your shopping cart, add and delete. Time flies when you’re shopping online. Choice seems infinite.

During the holiday season, I purchased 100 per cent of my gifts online. As for my clothes, I already buy 95 per cent online. I even purchased my wedding dress online. And now with the Beauty Boutique at Shoppers Drug Mart, I’m starting to buy cosmetics online.

Amazon’s push into the nether reaches of our personal preferences has encouraged other retailers to expand the boundaries of the online shopping experience. Recently Amazon purchased Whole Foods and teamed up with Top recipes on the site will now have an embedded option allowing users to purchase the ingredients for same-day delivery through AmazonFresh.

 As I’m writing this column this announcement popped up on my screen:

“Amazon has taken a big step forward with Whole Foods after it began offering grocery delivery from the retailer through its Prime service in the U.S.

The option is open to Prime Now customers, who get free two-hour deliveries of their products when they spend over $35. An “ultra-fast” one-hour delivery option costs $7.99 for orders of $35 or more.”

You can also observe Amazon’s clever television commercials enticing shoppers. All this makes traditional brick and mortar stores seem irrelevant, none more so than at the local mall, which is looking increasingly outdated.  I haven’t been to a shopping mall for months, unless it’s to upgrade my cell phone or return an online purchase.

 At the small but well-appointed Oakville Place mall, the shoppers are middle aged and older. They linger over coffee or a bite; they browse. Many seniors arrive with friends or their adult children. It’s a social outing that is slowly disappearing. Stores such as Birks and Radio Shack are gone. At the east end of the mall, the huge space that was occupied by Sears, stands empty. Closer to the lake at a smaller mall catering to the senior demographic, what was once Zellers and then became Target is empty, leaving the other retailers in the lurch. 

And that is exactly what frightens me.  One of the key predicators of health is the loneliness factor. It’s serious business if you’re lonely. Only smoking, a bad diet and lack of exercise have such a huge negative affect on your longevity as loneliness. Being close to other people is good for your health. It’s not just the few special ones who you reach out to in an emergency; it’s the casual connections that also make a big difference.

That’s one of the reasons why I don’t order my groceries online. As long as I can drive –or walk– to the neighbourhood grocery store, I make a point of dropping in a few times a week. I don’t feel I must do a large weekly grocery shop as I did when I was working full time outside the home. Now I proceed at a more leisurely pace. I pick and choose what I’m going to cook for dinner for the next few days.

Perhaps most importantly, I frequent the same cashier, Cathy, every time she’s at her register. I like Cathy. She’s smart and friendly. She packs my groceries in bags that aren’t terribly heavy. “One bag for meat, the other for vegetables and the other for the pantry,” she says. She remembers that I don’t save AirMiles, so she doesn’t ask me each time. I don’t require a username or a password.  Instead we talk: about the store, about the neighbourhood, about the cold winter weather. When I leave the store, I’m smiling.

It’s the same at the drugstore. Twenty-three years ago when I first moved to Oakville, I started to rely on the local pharmacist, Mahar. He’s taken care of my family ever since. When in doubt about a medication, I ask Mahar.  When my daughter was in high school, she worked for Mahar and he checked to make sure she had a ride home from work after dark.

Over the years, we’ve become friends. We discuss politics because Mahar always has an interesting book on the go.  Now that he’s slowing down and spending less time at his store, I miss our conversations and try to time my visits to his days on the job.

All in all, it’s becoming easier to stay home. But it’s not healthy and not near as much fun as taking the dog to the dog park, or walking over to McDonalds for a coffee date with friends. You can order McDonalds online these days, but that’s not for me. A recent article in The New Yorker shows how UberEats etc. is damaging New York’s restaurant scene.

In her recent column in The Globe and Mail, “No lines, no registers, no fun: Amazon Go’s sterile future,” Elizabeth Renzetti laments the introduction of the new Amazon Go outlet. “It is the store of the future,” she quotes CNN as saying.  Amazon describes it this way: “as the place where engineers have combined the most advanced machine learning, computer vision and AI into the very fabric of a store, so that you never had to wait in line.”

There are no Cathys at Amazon Go. Renzetti describes it: “ You download the Amazon Go app and swipe it on a turnstile as you enter the store. A combination of cameras and sensors detect the items you pick up from the shelves and adds them to your account….You merely exit the store, the beneficiary of Amazon’s cunningly named Just Walk Out technology.” She adds, “And now you have saved seven minutes, which can be spent on Instagram, Twitter, or browsing Amazon online.”

For now there’s only the one Amazon Go located at the bottom of their company’s Seattle headquarters. We probably won’t see one in Canada for a year or so, but that means the retail environment will be turned upside down again. I fully expect to see the cashiers disappearing from Whole Foods before long. Amazon is dropping prices at Whole Foods, but I can’t believe they’ll stomach a drop in profits. Retail as we’ve known it, depends on good employees so if you have a favourite behind-the-counter-person make sure to savour the experience. She might be gone before you can upgrade to your next computer.

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