From inside the Main Line boutique she is closing this weekend, 36-year-old Katie O’Neill sees an ominous future for us hunter-gatherers-turned-online-shopping addicts. Even as the evidence suggests the digital world is harming our psyches, we are retreating into bubbles, a social species reduced to staring into iPhone screens instead of mingling with other real, live human beings.
She’s closing Mushmina, her shop on Lancaster Avenue in Wayne, for the same reason that the kiddie wonderland Toys R Us chain is closing, along with businesses in towns such as Narberth, in shopping malls, and in communities far and wide.
The vacuum that is the internet is sucking dollars into cyberspace by persuading people to look no further than a computer or tablet to shop. It’s not just gutting community vibes and small-business dreams. It’s fundamentally transforming what it means to be human.
— Dominic Sisti (@domsisti) March 9, 2018
O’Neill worries not just about her own future, but about what this means for all of us, 10 or 20 years from now. As we talked in her shop a few days ago, I found myself agreeing fully with the impressively creative and never-say-die Millennial merchant.
My takeaway from the earthquake that’s made Amazon’s brilliant founder, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world goes something like this: Will most of us soon be underemployed, digitally hypnotized consumers ordering unmanned drones to drop milk onto our porches after robots extract them from a computer-driven warehouse?
God help us, if so.
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) March 23, 2018
“When you’re a shop owner, it’s like you’re a hairdresser, too,” she tells me, and I can relate. My dad ran a small deli when I was a kid; I still sometimes get emails from our old customers, who remember me behind the register, standing on a milk crate, while my dad made them hoagies and gabbed about life. “You hear what’s going on with [customers’] families, you hear about politics.”
It’s a sensory experience just walking into Mushmina. It’s adorned with gorgeous hand-crafted Moroccan leather bags, Berber rugs, jewelry and kaftans designed by O’Neill and made by women who live near Casablanca. This is the definition of eye candy, the end product of a singularly creative mind. No Amazon or Facebook algorithm can mimic the beauty or treasure-hunt feel of stumbling into a place like this.
“A lot of times they come in and they just bask in the specialness of it,” says Cindi Raimondo, who at age 57 only helps run the store because she too, years ago, had to close her own shop, Ruka, at 19th and Sansom Streets in Center City. Soaring rents and online competition were to blame.
Digital evangelists might be quick to say all is well, stop whining. But let’s be clear. They have no evidence with which to back that optimism. And O’Neill? She’s no Back-in-my-day! codger who fears change.
A Jersey native who graduated from University of the Arts, she’s worked in New York retail and parlayed that into her own business. She designs and buys goods from Morocco, with help from her sister who lives there and helps broker deals with local woman artisans who’d have no other way to make money themselves.
But O’Neill is stumped by the Rubik’s Cube that is our digital economy.
No matter whom she hires as a digital marketing consultant, no matter what she’s told to do with Facebook, online ad sales and the web, the bottom line is that her store’s overhead costs are not being sufficiently covered by customers coming into it anymore. She started selling some brand labels to give customers a broader selection, but found customers would come in, go home, and then buy the same thing online for a little bit less.
O’Neill is still making money. But she’s closing down while still flush enough to investigate a new business model. For starters, her plan in the next year is to pop up in communities throughout the year with temporary leases while beefing up her website.
Experts struggle to find a comparison in history to what we are living through. Sears Roebuck, which transformed the consumer economy a century ago by launching its once-ubiquitous catalog, didn’t gut brick-and-mortar stores the way online retail has.
Amazon has become so dominant that mayors like Jim Kenney in Philadelphia and across the country reportedly are offering the company everything but the shirt off their backs in return for landing its second headquarters.
Details of Philadelphia's cash offer to Amazon in HQ2 pitch ordered to be shared https://t.co/JBKqw2JG7y
— Jacob Adelman (@jacobadelman) April 27, 2018
Wharton business historian Dan Raff agrees this is unprecedented. But he’s not yet sure exactly what is being lost as we shovel our money toward the internet instead of people in actual stores.
Used to be: “It’s that you’re dealing with people rather than machines.”
Now: We’re opting for easy and speedy.
“A lot of what gets lost, beside the sense of community,” Raff says, “is the extent to which you’re doing business with people who might know you well enough to enter imaginatively into the question of what might this person want that they might not know yet that they want?”
O’Neill went to Morocco with customers not long ago and introduced them to the women she’s hired to hand-stitch her goods. Those customers, she said, were in awe.
This is what worries O’Neill as we continue to ditch one another for robots.
“I’m most afraid that without that kind of physical interaction,” O’Neill says, “how will people have compassion for each other?”