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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

MARGARET WENTE

How I became an Amazon junkie Add to ...

Is there anything Amazon can’t sell you? If so, I haven’t found it yet. The day our cleaning lady told me we needed a new filter for the vacuum cleaner was the day I became a convert. Normally, procuring such an item is a tedious and time-consuming chore that requires a special trip to the vacuum-cleaner store halfway across town. This time, I just ordered it from Amazon.

Newly empowered, I went nuts. Now I order something every other day. Here is a partial list of what Amazon has sent me lately: A pan for making popovers. A miraculous cleaning product called Bar Keepers Friend. A nylon shower curtain liner. Two wooden pickleball paddle sets. Five packs of Nicorettes for my husband, which, for some mysterious reason, are available from Britain for half the price you pay here. Some of these items arrived within hours. I even bought a book.

Amazon has turned material goods into a form of streaming entertainment. You can buy anything you want and get it almost right away. No waiting. No deferred gratification. No effort. You don’t even have to change out of your pyjamas or leave the house. It’s all yours with a click.

Read more: Amazon shakes up grocery sector with $13.7-billion Whole Foods deal

Opinion: Amazon’s appetite for disruption is a warning to Canada’s grocers

No wonder retail is dead.

Now Jeff Bezos wants to sell you food. No doubt he’ll succeed. Whole Foods is just the start. He realizes that for most people, the less time they spend in grocery stores, the happier they’ll be. And if he can find a way to deliver your artisanal organic cheese to you by drone, so much the better.

Amazon is already experimenting with a grocery store that’s run almost entirely by robots. It doesn’t have a checkout. An app on your phone records your purchases, which are automatically billed through your Amazon account. According to some experts, two-thirds of the work done by grocery-store workers can be automated. This is great news for shoppers and for profit margins, although not that swell for grocery-store workers.

Innovation always has a cost. The vacuum-cleaner store will disappear, if it hasn’t already. Bookstores – gone. Department stores – gone. Shopping malls – gone. Grocery stores will consolidate into a couple of supermegachains. Millions of warehouse workers, retail sales clerks, cashiers – gone. As Barack Obama warned in an exit interview earlier this year, the real job killer isn’t free trade, it’s automation. “Amazon and online sales is killing traditional retail, and what’s true there is going to be true throughout our economy.”

Well, so what? Progress wiped out the handloom weavers too – a development that worked out well for the world in the long term, if not for them. Naturally, Amazon prefers to play down this part. People will always be essential! “Our fulfilment centres are a symphony of robotics, software, of people and of high-tech computer science algorithms – machine learning everywhere – and our employees are key to the process,” the company explained in 2015.

But for employees at the bottom of the food chain, the music has stopped. Smart businesses will prefer robots, as fast-food magnate Andy Puzder mused. “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” he told Business Insider.

I’ll miss the old world in some ways. Before they turned into mausoleums, the brick-and-mortar department stores were monuments to modernity, prosperity and material abundance. I’ll miss the kids at Denny’s. I wonder what will become of all that mall space, once the department stores are gone. Perhaps the malls will be converted into vast warehouses for decrepit boomers, or giant amusement arcades for unemployed retail workers.

And yet, who can argue with cheaper, better, faster? Who can argue with the genius of Mr. Bezos, the visionary who has multiplied Amazon’s stock market value 500 times? His hold on us is so great that he has already 80 million people signed up for the Amazon Prime membership service in the United States. Soon we may be able to live in a Prime house, sit on our Prime chairs, dine on our drone-delivered dinner, and flip through a bestseller on our Kindle as our kids watch movies made and streamed by Amazon on our Prime TV.

We’ll all turn into hermits, because why bother to go out? Everything we could possibly desire is right here. And if it’s not, all you need to do is click.

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