Human technology

A return for physical stores

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Americans have been shopping online like crazy during the pandemic, haven’t they? Driven by fear or convenience, more of us feel comfortable clicking “buy” from our sofas – including to buy sofas – and there is no turning back.

It’s true. And also, well… right? Or maybe?

New data from the US government shows something that surprised me: brick-and-mortar stores beat online shopping in 2021. No kidding.

Americans spent 18% more on food, cars, furniture, electronics and other retail goods last year compared to 2020, Commerce Department says disclosed Friday. Online retail sales increased by 14%. In other words, e-commerce lost ground last year to brick-and-mortar stores.

Admittedly, 2021 has been a strange year for shopping. More of us wanted to sail in person than during the first scary months of Covid in the United States. Escalating prices and shortages changed what people bought and where they shopped. And a year doesn’t change the long-term trend that online shopping is increasingly taking hold of Americans’ wallets.

But the return of brick-and-mortar stores also shows how difficult it can be to predict how quickly technologies change our behaviors and the effects if and when they do. The future does not necessarily arrive in a straight line.

My point is not limited to shopping either. One of the great debates for our economies and our lives is to what extent the coronavirus and its digital adaptations could permanently alter all aspects of the way we spend our time, including the future of office work. , cinema and exercise habits. The honest answer is that we don’t really know. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t changed.

Brian Wieser is one of my favorite numbers enthusiasts, and he alerted me to the fact that brick-and-mortar stores have won in 2021. Wieser, the global president of business intelligence for advertising firm GroupM, said that he had taken to zooming out in two-year blocks of time to assess the disruptive effects of the pandemic on business and on us.

Wieser described what he had seen as a “new plateau” – the pandemic accelerated digital trends that were already happening and took our usage to the next level. Many people who study human behavior have also talked about how we learned about e-commerce, remote working, telemedicine and online socializing, which might not have happened until 2025. or later in the absence of a pandemic.

Analysis of Wieser data shows that we increased our online shopping more in 2020 and 2021 than in any two-year period since 2006. Amazon and Walmart have also encouraged their investors to consider two-year time frames. At Amazon, this may have been driven in part by lackluster sales. In the last six months of 2021, Amazon showed the slowest revenue growth rate in 20 years.

Juozas Kaziukenasthe founder of e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse, asked me a question a few months ago that I couldn’t forget: has the coronavirus really forced us to buy more online – or simply shop more, period?

It’s a confusing time to assess what technology has changed in us. The visual metaphor of a Wieser tray is helpful. Perhaps we have reached a new level of familiarity and use of technology. That doesn’t mean we can predict where we’re going from this new perch.

We (myself included) are always terrible at predicting the future of technology and how people and societies react to it. Sometimes a new app we keep talking about turns out to be Instagram, and sometimes it’s hello. (Don’t remember Ello? Exactly.)

And human behavior can change slowly, to the point where it overwhelms us. We might feel like online shopping was ubiquitous, but even now more than 85 cents of every US retail dollar is spent in physical stores.

So which one is it? Is online shopping the future of how we shop and changing everything or is it a relatively minor change that has gigantic ripple effects. Yes.


  • the DuckDuckGo web search service received winning recommendations as an alternative to Google from right-wing social media influencers and conspiracy theoristsreports my colleague Stuart A. Thompson.

  • The 10 disruptive technologies of 2022: MIT Technology Review selected a factory to remove carbon dioxide from the air, improved methods to track Covid-19 variants and other innovations.

  • At least the dog likes Amazon’s home robot: Six months ago, Amazon unveiled an experimental $1,000 Alexa on wheels called Astro. The device is only available to a select group so far, and Bloomberg News found an Astro buyer who said he and his Labrador retriever were amused by the device but not impressed with it. (Subscription may be required).

A the raccoon watches his boyfriend doggy style. I imagine a sweet story for these two.


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