Are You Being Served (by online shopping)?

Online retail is ubiquitous. But is it any good?

Sometimes. Other times, not so much.

What about the environmental impact?

The good:

  • Consistently comprehensive information. Full product descriptions. Reviews by:
    • other consumers, consumer associations,
    • industry associations,
    • random bloggers. many of whom are professionals in the field.
  • Stock. It comes in that colour, your size, a format compliant with the electrical supply in Iceland and can be purchase without leaving the comfort of your lawn chair.
  • Products are easy to find. At the physical store, staff that don’t seem to be able to find one of the 200,000 products in the [warehouse] store. Because really, who could? Online, the droids in the warehouse find it for you.

Online allows the entire company’s warehouse to be within reach of every customer service representative and has other wonderful features, like convenience, variety, ease of finding the lowest price. These features suggest an overall positive environmental footprint. Fewer car trips by buyers, more efficient delivery through route optimization with one vehicle serving hundreds of customers. Lower shipping impact compared to a company stock dozens of outlets across the country. Less impulse buying and therefore throwing of unwanted items into the landfill.

The dark side:

  • Occasionally not so convenient. If you order something requiring a signature, such as wine or expensive electronics, and aren’t there when it is delivered (because you are at work during the day, when it’s always delivered), then you have to trek, drive etc., to an outlet that is only open during the day. Online shopping is meant to avoid this.
  • Prone to theft. Because of the point above, many packages are left on the doorstep. And some disappear while waiting for the buyer to come home from work. Various creative approaches are being suggested to overcome this. Meeting people at in the parking lot of their work. Designated, convenient pickup points. Secure approaches to allowing the delivery person to place the package inside the home. It is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to address.
  • All that packaging. Tape. Boxes. Bubble wrap for fragile things. A mountain of stuff that is left over after the UPS truck departs. Might packaging of home-delivered merchandise negate 50 years of carrying your own shopping bags?

While the first two points could lead to extra emissions due to unnecessary trips, the third is more worrying, because it seems to have garnered little attention. The stats are staggering1. For the 2017 holiday season, UPS was predicted to ship 750 million packages, over 30 million a day.2 According to one source3, 41% of Americans get 2-5 parcels a month. Between 2012 and 2017, average annual deliveries increased in number between 5 and 6% for UPS, FedEx and the United postal service. How much cardboard, tape, sticky labels, and other assorted wrapping was involved? Tonnes4. Literally. And I haven’t heard a peep about it as an issue. Cardboard boxes are recycled, but how efficiently? The tape and labels aren’t generally. Overall, environmentally concerning.

While we’ve learned to minimize the packaging for items we carry out of the brick and mortar stores, can the same be done for home delivery? Here’s a great entrepreneurial opportunity – a ready made, growth market. Socially conscious. Easy to identify buyers and an easy to make value proposition if the new solution is less expensive than the current mound of packing.

Somebody go for it, please!

——-

1 Unless you are in the delivery business and then they are great – indicative of a good growth industry.

2https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/26/ups-expects-to-ship-750-million-packages-this-holiday-season.html

3https://www.shorr.com/packaging-news/2017-05/2017-package-theft-report-porch-pirates-purchase-habits-and-privacy

4 Incidentally, who is making cardboard boxes? -This also must be a great growth industry, especially with good recycling programs.

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Modern Potty Humour

What if everything in the future works like the automated public bathrooms of today?

The average state-of-the-art bathroom has:

  1. lights that turn on when you enter the room,
  2. toilets that flush when you stand up or walk away,
  3. taps that turn on when you place your hands under them,
  4. automated soap dispensers,
  5. sensor-powered air dryers or paper towel dispensers1

All these conveniences should allow for a visit to the restroom that requires not touching anything that another human has placed their germy bits on.2

Problem is, the technology doesn’t work reliably.

I’m sure you’ve been there. Toilets that flush while you are still sitting, spraying your exposed buttocks with heaven knows what. Taps that won’t turn on. Soap dispensers that make the noise but deliver no soap. Paper towel dispensers that don’t. Dryers with no air flow.

Makes me wonder which is the greater microbe-spreading evil: not washing my hands at all, washing with just water, or touching the exit door handle with wet hands.

Now that your toes are curled and you want to never go to a public bathroom again, let me share my real concern: this is how all automated systems will work in the future.

Consider the parallels that might be between the automated bathroom and soon to be available self-driving cars, or AI’s that run your house .

Current Automated bathroom Dependability and usefulness Self-driving car AI home control system
Lights turn on automatically when someone enters the room pretty much works all the time, so far so good, system is useful car is there when you call it, opens the door and greets you by name responds to your voice, plays Nickelback on command
toilet flushes automatically when you walk away from it, but sometimes when you are still there a bit overzealous but doing its job car takes you to desire destination, but makes a ton of suggestions for stops along the way, especially when you are in a hurry system opens and closes door locks based on specified permissions but refuses to let your youngest child in when hair is freshly dyed pink
taps turn on when you place your hands under them, most of the time, or sometimes after several thrusts in various directions basic functionality but needs work car usually stays on road, occasionally drifts towards other lane, then neck-wrenchingly corrects as it does in the proximity of a squirrel, person with cane, or baby stroller has mastered turning on lights in occupied rooms but music plays in the basement, garage or attic even when no one is there, which is creepy
soap dispenser either dispenses soap or makes a pit of the belly grinding noise trying good effort, failing because of need for a third party to refill the dispenser car runs out of fuel sometimes because fuel gauge is linked to commodities markets and car is trying to arbitrage prices via beta version app grocery orders often don’t include items that begin with b (bananas, barbecue chips and basa fish) because … ?
hand drying gambit of questionably functioning towel dispenser and hot air blower need to figure out which is the best approach and make it work car finds quickest route about half the time, still ends up sitting in traffic at rush hour (you begin to suspect it’s because it enjoys Bluetoothing with other cars) room temperature is controlled half the time, the other half you have to ask to turn it up, then down, then up, then specify a temperature 2 degrees warmer than you really want
no automated toilet paper dispenser why not? refuses to change radio stations, suggests stopping at dance clubs as an alternative will not interact with the dishwasher, claims it doesn’t understand what a dishwasher is

Is the public restroom a metaphor for the coming automated world we’ll live in? I hope artificial intelligence is going to be smarter. Sensors will be more sensitive and selective. There’s more sense to automation.

I’m looking forward to the day when we engineer a body lotion that converts all biological waste to molecules that are passed as odourless gases through the skin, thereby making bathrooms obsolete. Now that would be progress.

——

1I’ve noticed that many bathrooms are now equipped with both paper-towels and hot air blowers, leading me to believe that the experts are divided on which is the best way to dry your hands to avoid the spread of the plague or similar diseases, or which is environmentally preferable, or more user friendly, or all of these. Hence, public restrooms are equipped with both.

2One thing lacking in the automated chamber is the toilet paper dispenser. Why hasn’t anyone created a thing that dispenses 3.0 sheets of paper at the wave of a hand? I’ve been to many a stall where I’ve dug around to get the roll started, then yanked when I had a sufficient supply, only to have paper trail onto the floor. That’s not somewhere I want to go, so I tear off three feet and start again. Or the paper tatters in my hand, leaving a dusting of tp fragments on the floor. What a waste. And it looks unsanitary, even if it probably isn’t.

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Is Bitcoin like a Tulip?*

If it sounds to good to be true,

or like it should be illegal,

it probably is,

or will be soon.

I call this Ann’s Axiom, although I’m not sure I can claim exclusivity to the sentiment. I did add the last line to cover the current business environment, where it often takes a while for laws to catch up with technology.

So, bitcoin. Many of us are face-palming with regret that we didn’t buy some of this nouveau currency years ago. A small gamble, out of intellectual interest, might be worth the downpayment on a lux condo in Toronto now.

Why did it start? Because it could. The concept of blockchain – a way of distributing information so it is always verifiable – spawned a bunch of new concepts, including a currency or two founded on the principle. Bitcoin, like all currencies, are surrogates for value1. People who think bitcoin has value (buyers) will trade their dollars, gold, stocks or whatever for it, while those that find more value in the dollars/gold etc will sell their bitcoin, honouring the fundamentals of supply and demand.

Bitcoin futures recently started trading on the NY stock exchange, meaning that people can speculate on whether they think bitcoin’s value is going to go up or down2. There are futures markets in all kinds of things, from pork bellies to natural gas to Japanese yen. So why not bitcoin? Originally, futures were established to make doing business easier, such as allowing a farmer to find a buyer for their grain harvest while it was still in the ground and make plans based on knowing the value of the crop. Future’s buyers are willing, because early purchase might lead to a deal on the grain. Then humans got clever and decided that futures trading was a way to make money by riding the waves of supply and demand. I question what fundamental need is served by bitcoin futures?

Yeah, but, that’s not how modern financial markets work, you say. I’m worried, and here’s as flaky an explanation as I got: Bitcoin futures, along with the wild gyrations in bitcoin value and incredible increase in value over the past few years leaves an unsettled feeling in my gut.

There’s more enthusiasm than logic with bitcoin. Do I smell tulips3? It also reminds me of 2008, and the almost collapse of world financial markets.

Much as been written about the causes and impacts of the mortgage crisis of the last decade, what stands out for me are a few principles:

  1. It may not have been clear to everyone what they were investing in. Securities (surrogates of value) were bundled together in such a way that made them sound safer than they were.
  2. Past performance is no indication of future performance. Mortgages – what’s a safer investment? They’re secured on real estate, which time has shown to be a stable, safe investment. Stable meaning that it retains value without fluctuation and is backed by a tangible asset. But that supply and demand thing happened. A whole bunch of people defaulted on their mortgages in a short period of time and when the mortgage-holders tried to recoup their investment by selling the underlying asset, the asset spiralled down in value because there were many houses on the market. And so, the mortgage backed securities plunged in value too.
  3. But that’s not all. A chain reaction started when the mortgage-backed securities unexpectedly lost their value. Price instability rattled through the financial markets because investors needed cash to cover their losses and tried to sell other securities like commodities and bonds and financial whatnots. The whatnots were especially complicated when they were futures because of the unpredictableness of the situation. Commentary I’ve heard was that it wasn’t generally understood how the various markets, stocks, mortgages, commodities, bonds, were tied together. Perhaps because they weren’t tied together by any simple logic, only that people and institutions with a lot of investments have a lot of investments. (Right, eh?)

Do we understand now how bitcoin could impact the world’s financial markets? The thing that we can’t know, and shouldn’t really, is how the value of bitcoin will effect individual holdings, and therefore the desire of individuals to sell other financial instruments. If the value of bitcoin crashes, what would bitcoin holders sell to compensate? If it’s the same whatnots, will there be echo crashes?

Presumably we have tighter controls in financial markets across the world now. But my gut is uneasy. Tulips might be a good hedge. I’ve heard the sale of flowers remains strong despite economic conditions because people need a little bit of hope.


*  This (and all posts on this site) are commentary and solely my opinion. They are meant to be thought provoking, not business or financial advice.

1Currency makes trade easy and social. If I want to buy cauliflower but make my living as a dental hygienist, the dollar makes this exchange easy. I get paid in dollars and hand the farmer dollars. So much easier than cleaning one of their teeth every time I want some vegetables.

2Futures basics: Futures are a contract to buy or sell something for a fixed price at a specified date in the future. If the current price of gas is $1/litre, and you think the cost of gas is going to go down, but your friend thinks it’s going to go up, they might agree to buy a thousand litres of gas from you at $1.10 two months from now, thinking the market value will be $1.20 and therefore saving ($1.20 x 1000) – ($1.10 x 1000) = $100. You on the other hand think it will be $0.90 two months from now and so are happy to make a deal with your friend, sure that you can sell them $900 of gas for $1100, and profiting $200. Multiply all that by more zeros, big business and lots of suits, and you have a futures market.

3Many business and psychology profs will tell the story about mania in tulip bulbs in the 1600’s. Tulips, yes the spring flowers, increased in price in the Netherlands to truly silly values, with people reportedly selling their homes to buy just a few bulbs, only to have the bulbs crash in value a little while later, leaving investors with nothing but a pretty flower as their net worth. For more details see here or here

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The Internet of Work Life Balance

Where does the internet fit into the equation of work-life balance1? What is the equation on work-life balance, anyway? Is it:

work + life = 24 hours/day

Better add sleep:

8 hours sleep + work + life = 24 hours/day

Are meals work or life? Sometimes we eat lunch at our desk, but then have a dinner date. If your company provides free food while you socialize with your coworkers and talk about sports, is that life? Is it work if you take a client to a sumptuous restaurant you couldn’t otherwise afford? There are times when it feels like work to have dinner with your in-laws, or your significant other’s friends.

To be on the safe side, I’ll make meals a neutral category. The use of ‘balance’ implies some kind of sameness, so:

24 hrs - 8 hours sleep - 1.5 hours of meals = 
          equal parts work and life

Ha! Not many of us achieve this, unless you consider commuting, showering etc. part of life. Oh, but I forgot weekends, which means I need to do the equation for a week:

7*(24 hours - 8 hours sleep -1.5 hours meals) 
- 5*(2 hrs commuting + 0.5 hours showering) 

= equal parts work and life 

= 89/2 hours 

= 44.5 hrs/week work and 44.5 hrs/week life

That looks ok. Granted 14.5 hrs on each of Saturday and Sunday are the life balance part, which leaves only 15.5/5 or slightly over 3 hours each work day for the life part.

Does the Internet go on the work side, or the life side, of the equation?

Most of us can answer if any given website, or app, is related to work or life. Can’t we? Facebook is usually friends, which must be life unless you’ve friended your boss and coworkers. Which sometimes you have. And sometimes not. Most businesses have a Facebook page, so when your friend starts a business, you get an invitation to like their page, which of course you do, because you’re friends. It can get a little awkward. I have friends who run businesses that I don’t buy from. And friends who run businesses that I frequent. They are all still my friends because I keep my mouth shut and put on my business-person pants, enabling me to appreciate there is a market for what my friends are selling, even if it isn’t me.

Well, that got as far as Facebook being a minefield of business-like bombs that could explode in your life.

A complicating factor: What do people mean when they say they are ‘on the Internet’? Do they mean anything digitally connected? When I say I’m on the Internet, I mean, I’m surfing. Using Google to find interesting stuff. When I’m using the Internet to post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc, I consider I’m on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn etc. Similarly, if I’m sending email, I’m emailing, although that often is included in ‘using the Internet’. And technically, if using an app, whether it’s Uber to get a ride or your insurance company’s app to file a claim, you are using the app, which happens to run over the Internet.

Is the Internet ruining work/life balance? The premise is that with phone in hand we can always see work-related stuff. If I pick up my phone at 11:30 pm to answer a text from a friend about where we are going dancing the next night, and see a work-relate email which I answer in a few words, do I have a work-related imbalance in my life?

A good juxtaposition is studies that show how much time people spend on personal stuff ‘at work’. On the Internet. Assuming Netflicks is part of ‘being on the Internet’, 37% of people admit to watching Netflix at work2. Many companies block social media sites to increase employee productivity, which implies personal use of the Internet distracts from work. Does this help to balance work and life – that we use the Internet for work when we are at home and for life when we are at work?

The Internet has made this time-sharing easier. In days gone by, when you left work, the only way you could be contacted was via a landline, and only if you were at home and someone else wasn’t on the family phone. It was only done in dire emergencies. Similarly, the pre-Internet equivalent of watching Netflicks at your desk was reading a book. A very conspicuous not-doing-my-job activity.

I think balance is about choice. Sometimes I dedicate myself to work, but other times it’s okay to spend time on whatever personal thing is a priority3. And there’s inbetween times when even if I’m off work but find something of value to my job, I note it, or I’m at work and deal with a personal issue.

So the work/life balance equation looks like this for me:

Sleeping and eating 
      + doing a good job 
           + being friend, family and citizen

= using the internet to get these things done

QED4

3 as long as it’s legal and I’m not using the company name

4 which, despite what 1st year engineering students believe, does not mean Quite Easily Done

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