In 1995, a website called Amazon sold books from a remote corner of the internet. By 2016, it had penetrated deeply into other markets and was securing one of every two dollars spent online in United States. Today, Amazon.com is a 200-pound gorilla, accounting for almost 40% of online retail in the US, but it’s sharing cyberspace with many online retailers who are changing the face of business through e-commerce, which is expected to grow 20% in 2020, thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic. Pre-pandemic, brick-and-mortar stores in the US were already closing at a rapid pace (a record 9,500 retail stores in 2019 alone). Back then, consumers were beginning to wonder what the true expense of the internet revolution was. However, while this year’s pandemic helped shutter an additional 25,000 retail stores, e-commerce provided house-bound, quarantined consumers with much-needed supplies, inspiring critics to look differently at e-commerce.
Below, we’ll explore three of e-commerce’s drawbacks and three of its benefits.
E-Commerce Is Hurting the Economy
E-Commerce hurts small businesses
With the ability to have anything and everything sent to your doorstep, mom-and-pop businesses are less able to rely upon their local communities for clientele and must digitize to survive. Unfortunately, the online environment is rather unhospitable to small businesses. Google clearly favors big business, downgrading less mobile-friendly sites and allowing extended search results for brands. Not to mention that it’s even been accused of favoring its own search ads and services over those of competitors. Small businesses without the resources or savvy to push their businesses to the top of Google’s search engine food-chain are inevitably relegated to the bottom of the search list. They may consequently feel forced to conduct their business as third parties on online behemoths like Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba, where they incur fees and are further relegated to internet obscurity.
E-Commerce, the great American job-eater
Even before the pandemic drove consumers online, the migration of shoppers from brick-and-mortar stores to cyberspace was disrupting industries that had employed swaths of workers for decades. In recent years, pre-pandemic, large retailers like Macy’s and JCPenney’s laid off nearly 100,000 workers. In 2018, Toys ‘R’ Us was forced to close its doors due to many reasons, including e-commerce (though, after a painful bankruptcy, it reopened two stores in 2019). Experts are wary that the internet and e-commerce sector are not generating new retail jobs at the pace that they are eliminating old ones. Many of those laid off workers do not have the technical skills required to pursue the kind of jobs the internet is creating a demand for, like blockchain and UX design. As such, these workers are effectively locked into underemployment or unemployment.
Online economy spells unsustainability for media and entertainment
Pre-pandemic, the internet seemed to want to move all businesses online. However, not all industries have been able to adjust gracefully or profitably. The forced transition to an online economy has created an insurmountable dent in the cashflow, news, music, and movie industries. While many of these industries have made do – or even blossomed because of – the pandemic (Netflix, especially), many online streaming platforms and newspapers were financially insolvent before the pandemic. The abundance of free information and free content stymies news outlets and broadcasters’ from being able to request payment at all. Dwindling newsroom staffs means less investigative journalism. Without lucrative advertising deals, broadcasters were resorting to low-budget programming, like reality programs. Before the pandemic,many argued that the internet was bleeding the arts and media of its resources, thereby cheapening entertainment and devaluing creativity as a whole.
E-Commerce Brings Power Back to the Consumer
E-Commerce keeps prices down
Online commerce virtually (and literally) guarantees shoppers more bang for their buck. The internet endows users the privilege to swiftly compare prices. With in-store shopping experiences becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially during a pandemic, competitive prices become online businesses’ key playing card. Large online retailers like Amazon know this, and respond by offering the lowest market prices on their most popular and most viewed items. This holiday season, holiday sales were offered earlier in the year and for an extended period of time, which may become the norm. Pre-pandemic, the internet’s price wars were influencing beyond cyberspace – many brick-and-mortar stores had adopted online price-matching policies in order to stay competitive with their online counterparts. Not to mention that swift “on-demand” order and delivery has changed consumer expectations, making convenience and comfort an ideal they can take for granted.
E-Commerce is a boon for the global economy
Turning the world into a huge forum of buyers and sellers contributed a GDP the size of Canada’s to the world’s economy. The internet has helped to incorporate hundreds of thousands of workers into the global economy by enabling telecommuting and providing endless platforms for freelancers, creative entrepreneurs and small businesses to connect with clientele and sell their products and services. The internet has also been linked to improved rates of direct foreign investments in developing countries, a sign of the internet’s broad positive impact on economies across the globe.
Humanity marches forward
Pandemic aside, the drudgery of empty storefronts is by no means a sign of impending doom for the economy. In every economic system, old jobs are replaced by new ones, and the anxiety that accompanies these changes is as ancient as the bazaar. Agricultural workers were once worried that the tractor would render field workers inefficient and irrelevant. It did, but the world was not ravaged by unemployment – agricultural workers merely ended up contributing their labors to innumerable other industries. Similarly, the ATM, feared as the death knell of bank work, ended up generating hordes of new jobs related to ATMs. The internet may eradicate some kinds of work but will ultimately advance humanity toward new professional and economic opportunities. As there will be no end to human ingenuity, there will be no end to human work.
The Bottom Line: The internet is the double-edged sword of the 21st century. It destroys as it creates, it constructs monopolies as it invites competition. E-Commerce seems to be dictating entirely new terms for global and local economies. What do you think? Will these new terms benefit the economy in the long-run, or is the internet merely helping us to construct a palace on quicksand?