The cashierless store might be an experiment that goes nowhere. More likely, it means a revolution. But which kind?
As Amazon was opening its first cashierless convenience store to the public last week, Zanadu, Seattle’s venerable comic-book store, was preparing to close.
Groceries and comics, apples and oranges? Not necessarily. I’m not here to retell the simplistic and reductive “Amazon is evil” story.
Zanadu has been in business since 1975 and at its 1923 Third Ave. location for a quarter century. Although it will continue online after closing at month’s end, selling through Atomic Avenue, this is the end of the line for the physical store.
In the delightful retail space last week, surrounded by comics vintage and new — and wishing I hadn’t tossed all mine from the 1960s — I spoke to owner Perry Plush (his name sounding like the civilian identity of a superhero). He styles himself the Zanadu “President and Janitor.”
No one thing killed the store — he has no blame for Amazon, which once had offices across the street. Nor does he complain about his landlord, Plymouth Housing — he was happy to pay rent to help support low-income housing. But eventually the red ink became a flood.
“Part of it is how the logistics of downtown have changed,” he said. “They’ve taken our (street) parking. No more free-ride zone for the bus. It used to be, you could easily hop the bus and shop at lunch.”
The Great Recession was another blow, especially losing thousands of Washington Mutual employees, some of his best customers.
His gripe against Amazon and other tech workers is modest but telling: “They work so many hours they can’t shop.”
Also, “More and more people aren’t reading. It’s all on their smartphones and computers, so much entertainment — how can we compete?”
Both the new Amazon Go store and Zanadu are in my neighborhood, but they represent very different experiences.
The high-tech Go store promises no waiting — also no jobs for cashiers or that lost entry-level position, bagger, although some humans work do there. No need to fret over the $15-per-hour minimum wage for the array of sensors that track your purchases.
This won’t put 7-Eleven out of business anytime soon. But brick-and-mortar bookstores paid little attention to Jeff Bezos at first, too. Amazon Go represents a proving ground for a radical leap in automation, but it’s also soulless.
Places such as Zanadu delivers community — providing distinctive local shops, leadership, employment and “eyes on the street,” urban critic Jane Jacobs’ essential ingredient for a safe, livable city. This is supposed to be the kind of treasure that attracts young talent to a city.
Such local stores were all soul, and they’ve even been falling in Seattle, which has kept a walkable, unique retail presence when it’s long dead other places. The die-off has been profound, including Ralph’s grocery and deli, City Kitchens and the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.
Thank goodness the hyper-local, human-scale Pike Place Market continues to thrive — for now.
No single explanation is to blame, as Plush’s autopsy made clear.
The retail pain reaches nationwide and into chains, too. Through October, more than 6,700 stores closed in America last year, more than in the Great Recession.
E-commerce is a big culprit. But so are stagnant wages, demographics and changing tastes.
For example, the Washington Post (which is owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) recently looked at whether millennials would kill warehouse stores such as Issaquah-based Costco, as well as Sam’s Club and others.
“The core club customer is older: It’s generally someone with a family and a house,” Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at the research firm Forrester, told the Post. “Costco has been one of the least digitally forward companies out there. This segment has had its head in the sand when it comes to competing with Amazon.” (To be fair, most analysts saw Costco holding its own last year.)
No wonder 238 localities wanted Amazon’s HQ2, with 50,000 well-paid jobs and $5 billion in investment.
Most can’t count on the strong local economic connections, assets and ladders up that were common in the 1960s, when the middle-class was strongest and Main Street meant something. Long before e-commerce, these were killed off by Walmart, big boxes, anti-competitive mergers, union-busting, freeways and suburbanization.
But e-commerce and Amazon-like breakthroughs will take us to a new level of disconnection.
I am that strangest of males — one who loves to shop. And thanks to living in Seattle, I haven’t been forced to enter a suburban mall in years. I’d rather be in the men’s department of Nordstrom and Macy’s — supporting local jobs and the treasure of a downtown shopping district — than buying online. I love the social aspect of shopping.
Plush calls it “the wonderful interaction between people, where you can talk with others about the stuff you both love and are interested in.”
But I am from another century, another millennium.
In this millennium, the fieriest liberals see a crisis of capitalism that will result in its implosion. I’m not so sure.
The so-called retail apocalypse is real, from chain stores in hollowed-out suburban malls to the beloved lost shops of Seattle’s downtown and neighborhoods. The social consequences deserve more study.
Amazon, like Walmart, is a big cause. Whether Amazon Go takes it to an entirely new intensity remains to be seen. The store might be a one-off, ahead of its time. Or it might be a laboratory for a major shift in retailing, and huge job losses no matter how many warehouse jobs Amazon builds.
Lurking in the background is a broader question: What will automation, robots and artificial intelligence mean for the labor market of the future, beyond retailing?
Intelligent policy might lead to a guaranteed universal income — and universal health insurance — so people can pursue all manner of uplifting avocations. Maybe open a comic-book shop on a busy downtown street.
Lacking that, we might face a darkness that even the god of convenience can’t turn back.