A Holiday Perspective On Technology And Consumerism

Holiday shopping, long a staple in American life, has undergone significant change over the past half century. The “Miracle on 34th Street” post-war tradition of heading downtown to Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s has evolved from quaintly old-fashioned to downright anachronistic.

The other time-honored holiday shopping tradition of hopping in the family truckster on Black Friday and heading for the nearest mall or outlet store is also increasingly outdated, not to mention inconvenient.

In recent years, more and more people are finding themselves in their pajamas late at night dazedly looking at a computer screen or smartphone, ordering from our Modern Santa, Amazon Prime.

Shopping trends may be changing, but our year-end holiday shopping bacchanal is bursting at the seams more than ever — and the data backs this up. A typical retailer now expects one-fifth of its annual sales to occur over the holidays; total 2015 holiday spending is expected to reach an all-time high of $630 billion in the U.S. aloneroughly the size of our annual military budget or the entire GDP of Switzerland or Saudi Arabia. That’s a lot of TVs, LEGOs and fruitcake.

As much as $105 billion — more than 15 percent — of 2015 holiday spending is expected to be online, and this is projected to increase substantially in the years ahead. Early sales reports could make these estimates look conservative, as a record $7.5 billion was recently rung up online over Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday alone. A 5-10 percent annual decline of in-store sales over the same period gives us a pretty good idea of where the future is headed.

When viewed in isolation, it’s easy to get queasy over the increasing detachment of an already commercial activity, where every passing year brings more online shoppers buying more new stuff, delivered with more efficiency but less thoughtfulness.

Our downtown trips of yesteryear may be easy to romanticize, but it’s difficult to argue against the observation that today’s hyper-efficient warehouse and fulfillment infrastructure is taking an element of community and togetherness out of The Holidays.

The steady march of efficient consumerism will continue.

The amazing thing about living in a world driven by networked technology is the pace of change and the fragmentation of trends. Nothing stays constant. The steady march of efficient consumerism will continue, but so will the emergence of other themes that can have a counterbalancing effect.

Communities can form more quickly than ever to give to worthy causes during the holiday season. A great example is the recent introduction of Giving Tuesday. Designed to offset Cyber Monday and Black Friday, almost 1 in 5 Americans (almost 60 million people) are familiar with this movement only three years after its launch in 2012 by NYC’s 92nd Street Y.

Another encouraging development is the emergence of marketplaces that facilitate commerce across a variety of pre-owned verticals, minimizing the environmental impact of our consumerist impulses, regardless of season.

Also worthy of note are sharing-economy-based services that connect local communities in new ways, which in turn can help keep spending dollars local and bring more individuals and artisans into the online economic fold. Connecting all these trends is our smartphone, fulfilling prognosticators’ predictions that a remote control for life already is in our pocket.

I look forward to seeing how the new holiday normal evolves when my children begin their own journeys as teens and adults. I bet they’ll joke about dad clicking away on his archaic laptop late at night in his pajamas when he thinks everyone’s gone to bed.