Digital Life: A more efficient but less personal world

Home Depot offers better prices and selection than neighborhood hardware stores, but not as much advice.
Home Depot offers better prices and selection than neighborhood hardware stores, but not as much advice. The Associated Press

In the mid-1990s, I’d regularly head into my local family hardware store — a clueless homeowner with a broken this or that resigned to spending $100-plus on some replacement.

More times than I could count, I’d walk out with a $3 receipt and the know-how needed to fix what I already had from guys in the shop.

The shop has long since closed, doomed by giant box stores and their ability to deal in bulk.

So now when something goes wrong with my house — new enough to be made cheaply, old enough to be falling apart — I’m stuck with Lowe’s or Home Depot.

Nobody there asks what my problem is. In fact, thanks to self check-out, it’s more common than not that I’m in and out without exchanging a word. When I do ask for help finding something, the Home Depot phone app generally proves more reliable than the staff.

It’s the same story that saw family farms fall to big ones, or neighborhood video stores that gave way to Blockbuster before that chain succumbed to Netflix.

Those economies of scale long ago replaced the corner grocery with Hy-Vee and Price Chopper. That business may now shift dramatically again with Amazon’s swallowing of Whole Foods. (For some sense of how the online shopping goliath will behave in a brick-and-mortar world, consider that last month it patented technology that would stop in-store customers from making price comparisons on their phones.)

These trends aren’t evil; they’re the evolution of economics. They bring down prices by squeezing out the inefficiencies of selling stuff (assuming they don’t get so big that monopoly pricing sets in). Increasingly frictionless retail is inevitable. Modern technology — particularly the power to instantly match demand with inventory — simply speeds the change.

It’s a fool’s errand to find some net loss or net gain in the shifts. How do you compare lower cost, massive selection and the ability to order just about anything with a few clicks against the loss of your local hardware store or the jobs that went with it?

Now a wave of robots is ready to move into stores. While customers ring up their own purchases, machines will restock the shelves. The Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis recently estimated that more than half the jobs in the Kansas City area face at least the potential to be automated in the next 20 years.

No doubt, digital technology has been a great friend of the consumer. The internet lets us buy odd parts that were essentially unattainable before. Anybody hunting for a car now has as much idea of its market value as the salesperson on the lot.

And instead of relying on the random smarts of a guy in the hardware store, I’ve got millions of how-to videos on YouTube to solve my home repair woes.

I’m arguably better off with the selection and instructions that box stores and the internet make so simple. I wouldn’t swap digital age-convenience for the quaintness of the corner shop. Capitalism is just Darwin with dollars. Technology moves the decimal point.

That doesn’t mean I don’t miss talking with a friendly face about garbage disposals.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon