A MORE EF­FI­CIENT BUT LESS PER­SONAL WORLD

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - YOUTH | BILINGUAL - By SCOTT CANON

In the mid-1990s, I’d reg­u­larly head into my lo­cal fam­ily hard­ware store — a clue­less home­owner with a bro­ken this or that re­signed to spend­ing $100-plus on some re­place­ment.

More times than I could count, I’d walk out with a $3 re­ceipt and the know-how needed to fix what I al­ready had from guys in the shop.

The shop has long since closed, doomed by gi­ant box stores and their abil­ity to deal in bulk.

So now when some­thing goes wrong with my house — new enough to be made cheaply, old enough to be fall­ing apart — I’m stuck with Lowe’s or Home De­pot.

No­body there asks what my prob­lem is. In fact, thanks to self check-out, it’s more com­mon than not that I’m in and out without ex­chang­ing a word. When I do ask for help find­ing some­thing, the Home De­pot phone app gen­er­ally proves more re­li­able than the staff.

It’s the same story that saw fam­ily farms fall to big ones, or neigh­bor­hood video stores that gave way to Block­buster be­fore that chain suc­cumbed to Net­flix.

Those economies of scale long ago re­placed the cor­ner gro­cery with Hy-Vee and Price Chop­per. That busi­ness may now shift dra­mat­i­cally again with Ama­zon’s swal­low­ing of Whole Foods. (For some sense of how the on­line shop­ping go­liath will be­have in a brick-and-mor­tar world, con­sider that re­cently it patented tech­nol­ogy that would stop in-store cus­tomers from mak­ing price com­par­isons on their phones.)

These trends aren’t evil; they’re the evo­lu­tion of eco­nom­ics. They bring down prices by squeez­ing out the in­ef­fi­cien­cies of sell­ing stuff (as­sum­ing they don’t get so big that mo­nop­oly pric­ing sets in). In­creas­ingly fric­tion­less re­tail is in­evitable. Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy — par­tic­u­larly the power to in­stantly match de­mand with in­ven­tory — sim­ply speeds the change.

It’s a fool’s er­rand to find some net loss or net gain in the shifts. How do you com­pare lower cost, mas­sive se­lec­tion and the abil­ity to or­der just about any­thing with a few clicks against the loss of your lo­cal hard­ware store or the jobs that went with it?

Now a wave of ro­bots is ready to move into stores. While cus­tomers ring up their own pur­chases, ma­chines will re­stock the shelves. The In­sti­tute for Spa­tial Eco­nomic Anal­y­sis re­cently es­ti­mated that more than half the jobs in the Kansas City area face at least the po­ten­tial to be au­to­mated in the next 20 years.

No doubt, dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy has been a great friend of the con­sumer. The in­ter­net lets us buy odd parts that were es­sen­tially unattain­able be­fore. Any­body hunt­ing for a car now has as much idea of its mar­ket value as the sales­per­son on the lot.

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