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The Future (and the Past) of Shopping

Farhad Manjoo figures that same-day delivery services Amazon Fresh and Google Shopping Express are the future of shopping, a future wherein persons won’t have to leave their houses for produce and other groceries:

“After using it for a few weeks, it’s hard to escape the notion that a service like Shopping Express represents the future of shopping. (Also the past of shopping—the return of profitless late-1990s’ services like Kozmo and WebVan, though presumably with some way of making money this time.) It’s not just Google: Yesterday, Reuters reported that Amazon is expanding AmazonFresh, its grocery delivery service, to big cities beyond Seattle, where it has been running for several years. Amazon’s move confirms the theory I floated a year ago, that the e-commerce giant’s long-term goal is to make same-day shipping the norm for most of its customers.”

WebVan was certainly one of the greatest disappointments of its time and emblematic of the dot-com mindset. It wanted to do same-day delivery, but couldn’t make the economics or the customer service aspects work. But I wonder if Manjoo knows what the past of shopping really looks like?

Milkmen and icemen of the legit type used to deliver consumable goods to Americans’ front-doors. Paperboys (their declining profession once immortalized and coincidentally eulogized by Atari) delivered newspapers. 1920s-era American apartment buildings like mine so took for granted this economic model that they built special doors into the walls so that milkmen in particular could put deliveries into them. This type of service delivery, combined with the often-proposed “Internet of things” (a physical, tangible network of networked appliances and devices), is not so much something truly novel as it is a revival of old economic models.

Manjoo is better than most in at least realizing that the future often looks a lot like the past, even if he does cordon-off his perspective to tech ventures. But these instances are good reminders that knowing at least some history lets you see the future much better.

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