An E-Commerce Future, Ready or Not

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We have shopped online a ton during the pandemic, and some of those habits will stick. But I suspect our more e-commerce lives will have unintended consequences.

Buying online might become pricier or less convenient, we might need to rethink fast deliveries, and our neighborhoods may look different.

I sketched out some future possibilities to get us thinking about how our shopping budgets and habits could shift.

Mini warehouses might pop up everywhere: If more of us are ordering online, companies might opt to open more small package distribution hubs closer to where people live to provide faster deliveries. But that will mean more spots where delivery trucks move in and out, increasing traffic, noise and pollution.

So far, we haven’t consistently planned roads, airspace and neighborhoods for more home deliveries. But in the future, cities and towns could impose costs and restrictions on deliveries, like congestion fees or requiring clustered deliveries instead of allowing trucks to drive into the same housing development multiple times a day.

Some changes might lead to higher prices for what we buy online, Ken Cassar, an e-commerce industry consultant, told me.

Shortages might continue: One of the myriad reasons we’re having trouble finding toilet paper and pasta online is that Target and Amazon limit the quantity of products they stow in warehouses. That saves them money when shopping behaviors are predictable, but it leaves less flexibility when demand spikes unexpectedly.

If coronavirus hot spots pop up occasionally, it’s possible isolated product shortages will continue. Or if e-commerce companies permanently decide to keep more products on hand, that could increase costs for the companies — and for us.

Fast delivery might cost more: Most online shopping companies hate the cost and headaches of fast shipping, and it’s not great for the environment either, said Sucharita Kodali, who studies the e-commerce industry for Forrester Research.

Companies could seize this moment — when they must invest more in e-commerce and we’re thinking about our shopping habits — to retrain us. We might be forced to consider the cost and consequence of that heavy bottle of laundry detergent arriving at our door from thousands of miles away.

Rest assured we have been paying for that “free” delivery of the laundry detergent, even if the costs are hidden. Now, the cost could become more explicit.

Returns might be harder: For some items, like clothes, roughly one in five items bought online are returned. But now because of sanitation concerns, many stores are limiting the returns they’re accepting.

If safety fears continue, return policies may permanently become more strict. Stores that can’t resell as much of their returned merchandise, or that must sanitize it more thoroughly, will most likely pass their higher costs onto shoppers.

We’re all trying to figure out what the future of work, school, social interactions and family life will be. Maybe all of it, and our purchasing habits, will go back to normal. But I want us to consider that fast forwarding to an e-commerce future might require us to make adjustments we didn’t expect.

For the first time, Facebook has deleted accounts related to QAnon, the intricate, baseless conspiracy theory that a widespread plot is trying to undermine President Trump.

The QAnon groups had hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers, the Times tech reporter Sheera Frenkel wrote on Twitter.

The groups are another reminder that it’s not just Russian propagandists trying to warp what Americans believe. It’s us. We’re doing this to ourselves.

Facebook said in a report that the people behind the deleted accounts at times invented fictitious people to post about President Trump or promote extremist ideas and — more recently — coronavirus-related conspiracies, bogus cures and racist diatribes against Asian-Americans.

An odd detail: Graphika, a company that studies false information online, said some of the Facebook accounts associated with QAnon also advertised merchandise including a T-shirt with a “Don’t be gross!” message that encouraged hand washing.

It’s not necessarily against Facebook’s rules to post lies or even hateful rhetoric. But it is against the company’s rules to do so with accounts that hide people’s identity and coordinate information among multiple accounts.

One topic that Sheera said she wished Facebook had addressed is the ripple effects of these accounts created under false pretenses. How long were the Facebook accounts in operation, and how many people did they direct to websites where people encountered even more fringe ideas?

Conspiracies might start on Facebook, but they don’t necessarily end there.

  • Let me catch you up: California last year passed a law that said people who drive for Uber and Lyft are employees entitled to minimum wages and benefits. The companies said no way. And on Tuesday, California sued Uber and Lyft for breaking the law, as my colleague Kate Conger wrote. Up next: Each side will try to persuade judges or the public to back its position.

  • Volunteering to let your boss spy on you: My colleague Adam Satariano planted employee-tracking software on himself. It logged every website he browsed, graded him on productivity and tattled on his midday bike ride with his kids. After three weeks, even our boss concluded, “Ick.” (CORRECT, wise boss.)

  • Two words: Zoom Bachelorette.

Oh, wow, I applaud the creativity behind this “surfing” on dry land.

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