Josh Bergeron: As popularity of e-commerce rises, don’t forget about shopping local

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 28, 2019

Perhaps the age of convenience we live in has altered my expectations. Or maybe I should have known better.

Either way, I had long given up on ever seeing the product of a $23.78 purchase I made June 4 when I checked my mailbox last week.

Sure, it was an impulsive purchase. Through some computer algorithm and tracking of my internet history, an advertiser likely knew the model of phone I had and delivered an advertisement about a phone case in my social media feed.

At 10 p.m. on June 4, I decided to impulsively click “buy.” I didn’t have an expectation of receiving it quickly. If there was an option for speedy delivery, I didn’t pick it. But I certainly didn’t expect it to take until late July to receive it. I had received a tracking number, but it didn’t work.

That’s compared to Amazon, where for the cost of $12.99 per month, subscribers to its “Prime” service receive free two-day shipping and same-day delivery in some ZIP codes. Even compared to the backup pair of eyeglasses I ordered from a site I found through a Google search, the one-month waiting period was strange. The glasses started in Thailand and moved through India, Germany and Kentucky before arriving in Salisbury in just three days without expedited shipping.

I’ve attributed the monthlong wait to a one-off experience and that many online retailers have work to do. I’ve wondered since, too, about the sheer scale of an operation that’s able to ensure packages travel halfway across the globe in just a few days. And what about the effects on the world around us?

Locally, the possibility of and customer appetite for such fast shipping has resulted in the construction of three Amazon fulfillment centers relatively close by — in Kannapolis, Concord and Kernersville. And the sizes of the fulfillment centers are truly massive. During a press event at the Kannapolis facility in May, the company said it employed 1,000 people in the warehouse, which measured more than 1 million square feet — the size of about 28 football fields.

While Amazon ships all manner of products, there’s an appetite for specialized fulfillment centers, too, with online pet product retailer Chewy.com planning to build a 700,000-square-foot facility on Long Ferry Road and hire more than 1,200 people. An announcement earlier this year about Chewy’s plans made the 2018-19 fiscal year (July 1, 2018, to June 30) the most productive on record for economic development, according to an announcement last week by the Rowan Economic Development Commission.

And whether it’s in Rowan County or elsewhere, there appears to be no end in sight for growth of the e-commerce industry. Online retail sales across the country as a percentage of total sales is climbing into the teens and are forecast to continue growing.

For communities along major transportation corridors such as Interstate 85, Rowan Economic Development Commission President Rod Crider said fulfillment centers are a “pretty frequent” sight. Those communities can count on fulfillment centers, whether Amazon or another retailer, as a realistic economic development possibility.

There’s no doubt the explosion of e-commerce as a way to shop has brought convenience. There’s no longer a need to drive to the store for food (you can even order fresh fruits and vegetables online) or clothing, and you can do it all from the comfort of your couch.

A National Public Radio/Marist Poll last year found that just 24% of all U.S. adults have never purchased something online. And 43% considered themselves regular online shoppers. What’s more, a majority of respondents said the following were major factors in why they would shop online instead of in a store: shopping any time; that it’s easier to find items; saving time as compared to a brick-and-mortar store; and there are more product choices.

The poll isn’t an anomaly.

While we once shopped at department stores in downtowns and, later, in shopping malls, a sizable number of us do a portion of our shopping online, with large fulfillment centers shuttling our products out the door and onto delivery trucks. There are no longer any department stores downtown. And the former Salisbury Mall is largely empty.

The convenience and rise of e-commerce has been accompanied by the so-called “retail apocalypse,” with brick-and-mortar stores being forced to shut down. Also, while fulfillment center jobs generally pay better than most, they generally come to communities with good access to transportation corridors.

Asked whether the rise of e-commerce is a net win for Rowan, Crider said, “Yes, probably,” but included the caveat that cities like Salisbury and Rowan’s smaller towns need retail stores and a vibrant downtown for quality-of-life reasons. There’s not much charm to a city with a plethora of empty storefronts.

So I’ll take my recent, monthlong wait as a sign that online shopping can still be dicey. I can always get a product the same day by driving to a nearby shop, even if it’s available only in Charlotte. I’d rather spend money on gas and have the options nearby than the alternative.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com.

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