Once again, Amazon is disrupting retail. We’ve been feeling it big-time in Seattle for years. The latest news about Whole Foods means yet more anxiety to come, no doubt.
The blocks around the building where I sit writing this are rapidly being consumed by Amazon.com, which is about to purchase the Whole Foods grocery store down the street.
Maybe consumed isn’t the only way to look at it. The neighborhood is being transformed and revitalized, and that is the treatment Whole Foods is said to be in need of. Amazon announced Friday it is buying the Whole Foods grocery chain. And as a consequence we are all in for more change.
Change happens all the time and always has, but it’s harder to keep up with these days when it’s so large and so fast.
I came across this quotation attributed to the sociologist Gerhard Lenski: “The most striking feature of contemporary life is the revolutionary pace of social change. Never before have things changed so fast for so much of mankind.” That statement is from 1974.
Well, we all know the pace has just kept on getting faster since then.
It can be hard for individuals to adapt, but probably harder for big systems — education, politics, media, even grocery stores. How will government regulate self-driving cars, or drones that deliver goods? How do we preserve privacy when data is being gathered about us constantly as we go about our new normal routines?
There are far more questions than answers, which may be one of several reasons more people are feeling anxious.
A number of reports show Americans suffering from anxiety, stress and depression at rates that have gone up dramatically over the past several years. The Great Recession is blamed for some of that because of the disruptions it caused, and the election of Donald Trump is another stressor for many people. But we were already feeling increasingly stressed by our fast-track digital life, growing inequality and demographic change.
We’re anxious because we’re constantly having to relearn how to live as the familiar gives way to the new. Our minds don’t get a rest. We work overtime sorting out things when little can be taken for granted. The job that lasts a lifetime is gone. The stakes are higher for young people trying to get into college, or to get a job that pays a living wage, or to find affordable housing in booming cities like Seattle. Fewer retirees can depend on a pension to help with the bills.
So Amazon buying Whole Foods doesn’t seem like the biggest disruption. But it may send out waves of change in a fundamental business. When the plan was announced, stock of the two companies went up. But stock in other grocery-store chains went down because buyers are betting those other grocers will lose business to Amazon, the way so many other kinds of retailers did as Amazon made online buying the norm for gadgets, books and more.
Office-product stores are consolidating, Macy’s is selling off more of its space in downtown Seattle, bookstores have had to redefine themselves as cafes that sell books, too.
The stock market is guessing a lot of grocery stories could disappear.
Ordering groceries online will be something else to get used to, but maybe it will reduce stress. We won’t have to drive to the store and deal with traffic and the need to wear something that doesn’t have stains on it. We won’t have to run into people we don’t want to run into, but we also won’t get to run into people we do want to see.
We can stay home, watch a movie on Amazon Prime or Netflix, or read a Kindle book and put that saved time to good use.
The folks who used to work at the grocery store will have to find other jobs, maybe at Amazon, in one of its warehouses. Empty grocery stores can house homeless people at least for the time it takes for them to be developed into apartment buildings.
Of course it will be different in smaller cities that aren’t booming. Empty buildings might remain empty. But then less driving is better for the environment. And if the environment survives climate change, we can all take a walk in the woods to relieve our stress.