One of my favorite scenes from the holiday classic, A Christmas Story, is when ”the old man” and Mrs. Parker take Ralphie and his younger brother Randy to the big crowded Higbee’s department store in downtown Terre Haute (Cleveland in the real world) to visit a bad Santa and his elf who wind up terrorizing both boys.
Still, there are days when one of my least favorite scenes is actually inserting myself into one of those big holiday shopping crowds. On those days, I stay home and shop online.
But I may be fooling myself in thinking I guard my privacy more by shopping at home rather than going out to the stores. More on that later.
A lot of us are letting our fingers do the walking if the records kept of online shopping activity are accurate and if the smaller mall crowds the past couple years are any indication. Of course the recession helps create a larger diameter of personal space at those malls, too. One hopes, for the sake of the economy, that this is a temporary downturn.
Many still like to shop the old-fashioned way, and it does help a person’s holiday spirit to get out with others who are engaging in the selfless activity of giving to others. All the Christmas trim, music, and even the bad Santas add to that merriment. More of us are even finding it alluring to climb out of bed at 4:30 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving to at least go see what Black Friday is all about down at the discount store.
Still … comScore, a publicly-traded company that measures digital shopping activity reports that online shopping continues rise in popularity this holiday season. A Dec. 8 press release from comSore notes, up to Dec. 13, nearly $20 billion has been spent online, marking a 3-percent increase versus the corresponding days last year.
And the American Research Group has noted that those planning to shop online in 2009 (42%) have surpassed those planning to shop from catalogs (36%) for the first time since these records were kept.
The sales stats for online shopping are still just a fraction of the stats for the retail stores, as retail shoppers spent $41 billion just on the Black Friday weekend alone this season, according to the National Retail Federation. But $20 billion in online sales shows that the virtual world of the Web is affecting the way we spend our money. Add that effect to the myriad of other ways that computers and the Web are changing our lives. Like other changes, this one is a mixed bag. We can shop in a private environment, but ironically we give up privacy in the process.
Before getting to that touchy problem, it is fascinating to see how an online shopping conglomerate like Amazon.com, for example, works. The company that has been the subject of several stories about the long hours that employees must work is also the story of an innovator in e-commerce retailing.
In 2006, writer Julia Layton described Amazon’s growth and process in the online site, How stuff works (http://money.howstuffworks.com/amazon) She wrote, “In 1995, Amazon.com sold its first book, which shipped from Jeff Bezos’ garage in Seattle. In 2006, Amazon.com sells a lot more than books and has sites serving seven countries, with 21 fulfillment centers around the globe totaling more than 9 million square feet of warehouse space.” And if you’ve ever wondered how Amazon and other e-retailers like it just seem to know the kind of stuff you’re interested in, Layton describes that, too:
“The embedded marketing techniques that Amazon employs to personalize your experience are probably the best example of the company’s overall approach to sales: Know your customer very, very well. Customer tracking is an Amazon stronghold. If you let the Web site stick a cookie on your hard drive, you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of all sorts of useful features that make your shopping experience pretty cool, like recommendations based on past purchases and lists of reviews and guides written by users who purchased the products you’re looking at.”
That’s nice, and it gives you the feel a company really does know you. But it also has its downside: further erosion of individual privacy, which will be the subject of future Virtual Unknown posts. It is much easier for a company to track our online shopping habits (thereby developing a “profile” of us which we used to think was private until we self-disclosed it), than for an actual retail store to do the same. Unless you offer up your e-mail address, Zip code, or phone number to the sales clerk, there’s no reason to assume the store will know anything about you at all.
I used to have a professor at the University of MIssouri who wondered if there might come a day when television (PCs didn’t factor in then) would be watching us more than we watch it. That day has arrived, although it is the computer and not the TV screen that is doing the watching. You could make the case that online retailers like Amazon may know us and our consumer desires better than we know ourselves.
So whether we choose to do our shopping online or by visiting the physical stores and mixing it up with the crowds — and that one particular person who may be reaching for the last George Foreman grill that you wanted — we are facing facing tradeoffs either way. It may be nice to do shopping from the privacy of our own homes, but we may be giving up that privacy to the online marketers who are gobbling up information about us even as we make our buys.