Killed By The Net

Sunday would have been my dad’s 79th birthday, had he not died about a month ago.

I don’t bring this up so you’ll feel sorry for me. (Mom’s fine – I’m not an orphan yet.) I want to tell a story about my dad that will illustrate the Internet’s impact on the real world of commerce.

You see, when I was a child, growing up on Long Island, my dad was in love with California. (The family eventually moved there after I graduated high school, so this story has a happy ending.) We were probably the only family in Massapequa with a subscription to the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times, which usually arrived on Thursday. My dad, you see, was a sucker for their real estate ads.

One fine summer day in the 1960s, the Chandlers’ Times didn’t hit our mailbox. My dad was moony all night. He resolved that the next day he would do something about it.

Leaving his TV repair shop in someone else’s hands (I think it was my mom’s) he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, sat me down in his truck, and took off to the West, toward New York City. (This is how I got my great sense of direction – Manhattan is West.)

We took the Queens Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan, cut across 34th St., then headed north to Times Square. I was then tossed out of the truck and directed to a newsstand at the base of the Allied Chemical building that sold out-of-town papers, including the LA Times. I bought dad his paper while he drove around the block. (That’s what I was there for – you didn’t think we were bonding, did you?) Then we headed back home.

Well, “USA Today” reports that those newsstands are now being killed off by the web. They’re not the only business that’s being killed in this way.

Your friendly local travel agent is no more, thanks to the web. My town once had a half-dozen travel storefronts and now we have one, who specializes in cruises and looks on shaky ground even there. He’s also adding a surcharge to all airline tickets, driving longtime customers like me to the web. And he’s not friendly at all.

There are other businesses on the endangered list. Newspapers are losing classified ads, which represent most of their profit, to the web. The Post Office is losing much of its first class mail revenue to the web. Bookstores that didn’t succumb to Barnes & Noble early in the decade now face Amazon.com. Video stores and CD stores are closing.

All this is just part of our reality. TV repair shops like my dad’s are no longer viable, because TVs are so simple and cheap it’s easier to throw them out. (PCs are headed down that road, too.) Change is constant, and e-commerce is a great agent of change.

My point is we need to understand that our winning means someone’s losing. That someone’s not always going to be happy about it, especially if we rub their noses in it with our wealth. With economic power also comes responsibility. That’s something worth thinking about as Christmas approaches.

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