Resident POV: E-Commerce & the Death of the Mall

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Having a bit of time during this pandemic and today working at a “virtual trade show” allows me a bit of time to compare and draw some analogies on how e-commerce and virtual trade shows have a lot in common and contrast them to traditional brick and mortar stores and live trade shows.

First of all, the virtual trade show allows attendees to click on different meeting topics to watch pre-recorded product demonstrations or technical discussions. It also allows opportunity click on an attendee and start a virtual chat, not unlike a chat on the sidebar of a Zoom meeting, just without the camera or live audio of the zoom meeting. The trade show also has vendor booths; I can enter a booth and click on links to product datasheets and sales materials. All very sterile and impersonal.

There is no opportunity to touch and see the actual product and evaluate the quality or performance. The impersonal chat doesn’t give the opportunity to listen to the tone of the salesman – is he or she confident in the quality of the project. In a live discussion so much more information is expressed in a short period: What type of steel was used? What is the expected lifetime and how many cycles was it put through to demonstrate that? For a piece of equipment, what type of service parts do I need and can you explain how easy they are to change? What advantage does this product have compared to your competition?...

At a live trade show I can see multiple competitive products. I can touch and feel them; I can compare them and can make a very educated evaluation if the product will meet my expectations. A brick and mortar store is much the same; I can go in and talk to the salesperson. I can touch and feel the product. I can open the doors, test the latches, try things on and can look at competitive products right next to each other.

E-commerce is like the virtual trade show. I can click on pictures, look at sparse datasheets (if any) read occasionally unclear product descriptions. Frequently I can read product reviews, sometimes helpful and occasionally just plain misleading or the reviewer is just simply reviewing a completely different product. As an example, I was looking at a new snow-thrower at the local equipment supplier on Amherst Street in Nashua. One of the models, a reviewer gave a single star because the electric start failed pre-maturely, when in fact the model reviewed didn’t offer an option for electric start.

By now you have read that Amazon is starting to take over shopping malls by renting space for distribution centers or last mile delivery depots. Examples would include JCPenny or Sears stores. Once the magnet stores are gone, the smaller stores will also slowly shutter as fewer and fewer customers even bother to go to the mall. And with that, you will lose your ability to touch and feel and smell the products available.

By now you are well aware that Amazon as well as many other companies are working on highly automated facilities. Indeed, I was visiting a Facebook “group” page for one of the Amazon facilities, I believe in California. This page was open, many are private. One of the discussions was regarding another facility in the same area. Having visited this page, the following is paraphrased and might have a bit of literary license. One of the questions posted went along these lines:

Employee #1 - Have any of you Amazonians knows what’s going on over at Building XYZ? There are never many cars over there.

Employee #2 - No idea, but trucks are going in and out all day and night

Employee #3 - It’s spooky, freaks me out. All that space and only a handful of cars.

Employee #1 - I wouldn’t want to get assigned there, nobody to talk to. They must be AmaZombies

And sadly when the mall closes, the people working those stores will lose their jobs and be replaced by AmaZombies.


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