Do retail stores really create community, or do we just like to buy stuff?

In 2011 Americans spent $33.5 billion online.  That’s a 15% increase from 2010, according to comScore.  Any increase in spending, whether online or in stores, is a sign of an improving economy, which is surely something to celebrate.  But brick and mortar retailers aren’t thrilled.

Store owners complained in December that holiday shoppers are increasingly using retail stores to check out a product before going home to buy it online.  In other words, their retail stores are becoming showrooms for e-commerce giants like Amazon.

And this is exactly what Amazon wants.  In fact, before the holidays Amazon actually gave shoppers a discount if they went to a retail store and left without buying anything.  If a customer went to a store like Best Buy or Target, used the Amazon Price Check App to compare prices to product on Amazon, and then later purchased the Amazon product, they receive up to 15% off.

Retail stores argue that the shift to online shopping isn’t just bad for their balance sheet, but it’s bad for the community.  Drawing up nostalgic images of families heading downtown in their Sunday best, retailers, and many other people out there, believe that local retail stores are the foundations of the neighborhood.

Retail stores are certainly  a part of the local economy, but if they were replaced by, say, locally owned restaurants, gyms, dry cleaners, etc, would the community actually suffer?  Is shopping as a social enterprise (and I mean social as physically being with other people, not as in social media) a part of local culture that is worth protecting? And what would be the consequences if we didn’t protect it?

I’m a big proponent of supporting local business, and I’m also employed by an e-commerce company, so it’s an interesting question to me.  Does physical group buying (ie shopping with friends), strengthen a community, or does it simply reinforce materialism?  Does spending create a local culture, and does consuming with friends actually strengthen a relationship?

As buying becomes more solitary and, paradoxically, more social (and here I mean as in social media), we’ll have to decide whether physically shopping in a retail store is a cultural tradition that we’re willing to maintain.  And that will mean walking away from our laptops, despite the incentives of free shipping and no-question returns.