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A Little E-Commerce Has Big Ripples

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Online shopping is not as big a deal as you think, and it’s a much bigger deal than you think.

In the “meh” camp: While for some it can feel like e-commerce is the only commerce, Americans still buy about 85 percent of our stuff in person. And our internet shopping over recent years has been a contributing factor to a record number of store closings every year and other retail pain — but it hasn’t been the cause.

What’s remarkable, though, is the profound effect from the relatively small amount of digital shopping. Online shopping has changed our behavior, reordered the nature of work and challenged the functioning of our neighborhoods and cities.

If that has been the impact when online shopping is 15 percent of what we buy, what happens if the pandemic permanently kicks that share to one quarter or more?

We should cheer the convenience of online shopping, and it’s the safest option for many people in the pandemic. It has also created new opportunities for businesses to reach new customers.

That doesn’t mean we should like everything about the new order.

But first we need to recognize what online shopping has changed — and what it hasn’t.

Second, in-person stores aren’t going away. If anything, the last few years showed how much they matter. Amazon bought a grocery store chain, for goodness sake, and is building more food shops and convenience stores.

What has changed from online shopping are our brains and our world.

I am happy for shampoo to appear on command at my door. But we haven’t assessed what we lose when shopping shifts from wandering the mall with other humans to sitting alone at home with robots.

And as I’ve written before, in response to a small minority of our shopping shifting online, delivery orders have forced neighborhoods and cities to grapple with far more truck traffic and chaos.

Online shopping is also creating jobs that may be better than conventional retail store work in some ways, but pose other challenges. Compared with retail store jobs, the work of the online shopping economy tends to be more automated, in fewer parts of the country and employs more men than women.

It’s not Amazon’s fault that its package sorting operation in Baltimore stands on the grounds of a former auto factory that once employed 8,000 people who made up to $100,000 a year in today’s dollars, while Amazon has half as many workers there making less than half as much. This is a broader economic reordering.

But is that it? Should we, as Amazon’s top spokesman suggested in The New York Times Opinion section in February, stop comparing a warehouse employee making $30,000 a year plus benefits to an autoworker making twice as much decades ago because these jobs might be the worker’s best option?

We shouldn’t preserve old ways of life because of nostalgia. But it doesn’t mean we should just shrug and turn the page, either.

When I asked you recently to send in your gadget fix-it questions, I definitely did not expect Judy from Los Angeles to ask about reviving her portable Sony CD player — a.k.a., the Walkman or Discman that was first made in the 1980s.

Dan Koeppel from the Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The Times, tackled this retro tech query:

I admire your spirit. I assume this is a labor of love, and that’s always a good thing — even though this answer is going to emphasize the “labor” part.

Now, forensics. I’m going to take a guess and hope it makes me look like a genius: Some old music players, including those from Sony, had a button marked “hold.” When this switch is activated, the unit won’t turn on. Other models had switches for the battery. Look on the exterior and inside the battery compartment and flip any switches you find.

Did that work? If not, dig deeper. Look for any corrosion on the battery terminals and clean them. Wear protective gear for your hands and eyes. Battery acid is nasty stuff.

No go? I’m afraid there aren’t many self-help options left. As an Angeleno, I would have recommended my go-to electronics repair guy, but he retired last year. However, Los Angeles still has a dwindling number of old-school repair outlets.

If you’re up for an adventure, you might find somebody able to revive your classic device so you can (I hope) play that vintage Christina Aguilera CD.

  • How to balance work and keeping employees safe: One central business question of the pandemic is how much employers should do to protect workers. My colleague Karen Weise looked at one Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania that missed early opportunities to safeguard employees, including not fully implementing some health measures for almost two months.

  • TikTok has a new boss: The app for short videos is one of the few apps from a Chinese company that has caught on everywhere. It just hired a high-profile new chief executive from Disney, my colleagues Brooks Barnes and Jack Nicas wrote. His challenge will be to keep TikTok relevant, make it financially viable, calm American lawmakers worried about its Chinese ownership and avoid the mistakes of internet hangouts that came before. Good luck, new guy!

  • Red state memes versus blue state memes: Nick Corasaniti on The Times’s politics team writes about the 33-year-old twins behind the popular Facebook page Occupy Democrats. The social media mavens of the left are emerging as a counterweight to the internet mastery of the right.

Just watch this solo home quarantine recreation of the closing scene of “Dirty Dancing,” with a floor lamp standing in for Jennifer Grey. (My colleague Sapna Maheshwari spotted this in the “So Many Thoughts” newsletter.)

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