Shopping habits in the wired new world

I'll just say this up front: I'm a reluctant online shopper.

Part of it is age — having just embarked on my seventh decade (yikes) of living in our consumer economy, I grew up going to local stores when I needed to buy something. I still prefer to do that, especially when clothes shopping. I like to try on garments before I buy them rather than going though the hassle of sending them back if they don't fit.

If I don't know exactly what it is I need — a part for a home repair project, for instance — I like to go to a store where the staff knows more than I do and can help me decide what I need and help me find it.

That's not to say I never buy online. It's easier to find things such as replacement parts for a refrigerator or a dishwasher, and often less expensive. Parts for my aging car, too, are handy to order online.

Online shopping is booming, and local brick-and-mortar businesses are hurting. That's what bothers me the most about shopping online. Every time I buy something from a local retailer, I'm helping pay the wages of the people who help me, and they spend that money in the local economy, too. It's all connected.

Sure, that gift I order from Amazon supports jobs. But except for the FedEx driver who delivers it to my door, most of those jobs are elsewhere.

I realize many people, especially younger ones, see the wired economy as a plus. If companies can deliver the same product for less money and with greater convenience, that benefits the consumer, right? What's not to like about not having to burn gas, navigate traffic and park when you can do it all from the comfort of home?

That's fine as far as it goes, but online shoppers are missing something else, too: the shopping experience, perfected by enclosed malls, where you browse through stores looking at things you might not need, stroll in temperature-controlled comfort and maybe grab a bite to eat at the food court. Malls, too, are feeling the pinch of online competition, and analysts predict a quarter of them will close by 2022.

The industry's response is to transform some of these huge structures into destinations for more than just shopping: amphitheaters, fine dining, fitness centers, farmers markets, offices, medical clinics, even condominiums. A local architect-in-training has done his master's thesis on such a plan for the Rogue Valley Mall. It's only conceptual — the mall's owners might pursue some of the ideas but certainly not all — and implementing the full vision would cost hundreds of millions.

It's worth asking whether such a transformation would compete with the community itself. If people can go to a mall to enjoy garden walkways, a nice dinner out and entertainment, where does that leave downtown? When malls first began to sprout, they pulled business out of historic downtowns, leaving many struggling for decades. Now, in an effort to compete with e-commerce, they could wind up having the same effect by offering amenities besides retail shopping.

There are tradeoffs in all of these attempts to appeal to consumers. In the end, we all do what makes the most sense to us, whether it's saving money, supporting local entrepreneurs or indulging in a pleasant experience.

As for me, I'll continue to do most of my shopping locally as long as I can.

— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at

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