I was visiting my snowbird father near Tampa, Fla., about four years ago when we took a side trip while driving near his residence.
“I want to show you what Amazon built down here,” he said.
Moments later we drove alongside one of the largest buildings I’ve ever seen. The Amazon “fulfillment center” in Ruskin, Fla., is some 1.1 million square feet — about 28 football fields, according to a story in the March 30, 2016, Tampa Bay Times. More than 2,500 people work there, the story said, with up to 4,000 during the holiday “shopping” rush.
The warehouse also contains hundreds of robots and some self-driving vehicles that move merchandise from one end of the building to the other, the Times story said. It also noted that at another Amazon warehouse in Lakeland, Fla., there is a robot the size of an adult elephant that picks up and stacks entire pallets of merchandise.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. As I drove down Clairemont Avenue I noticed a large “Going Out of Business” banner stretched across the front of the Shopko store. As I drove on, I thought about that edifice in Ruskin and couldn’t help but link the demise of Shopko to the rise of Amazon in particular and e-commerce in general.
The once-bustling Shopko store soon will join Kmart, Sears and Younkers in Eau Claire’s growing list of large, vacant retail outlets being replaced by monstrous Amazon facilities far away. Add the vacant building on Hastings Way that formerly housed Mega Foods, and it’s clear we have a lot of large empty structures on our hands.
I’m no big fan of shopping, but I do like the idea of buying stuff from real people, especially local people. They may be college students working nights and weekends to pay for school. They may be single parents working a couple jobs to try to make ends meet. They may be a husband or wife trying to augment the family budget to put groceries on the table.
These local businesses also have managers and assistant managers, and people working at night stocking shelves. I want to support them because I feel in doing so I’m supporting my community. Plus, I like the idea that if the thing I buy breaks, I can go back to where I bought it and deal with a live person who can make things right. That seems far better than having to put the item back in a box and ship it to wherever.
But I also know I’m swimming upstream. And as e-commerce continues its steady march toward domination of our retail economy, businesses have no choice but to join the trend or lose market share.
I noticed this first-hand a few years ago as I perused the many advertising inserts in the Leader-Telegram on Thanksgiving morning. I was looking to buy a tablet computer and saw what I wanted in one of the ads. It was a good deal, so I figured I’d get up early on Black Friday and see if I could get one before they sold out.
But I also went online to see if I could get more information about the tablet, and, lo and behold, I found the same tablet computer on the retailer’s website at the same advertised price with free delivery to my house. It obviously made no sense to get up before dawn the next morning when I could accomplish the same thing sitting at my computer, and a few keystrokes later I had placed my order.
This is how more and more people do most if not all of their shopping for clothes, electronics and many other goods.
Still, I’m something of a holdout. Last year I was at a local store eyeing up their golf bags. I saw one I liked, then went online and found it a bit cheaper on a golf warehouse website. I showed the competing price to the store clerk, and he offered a price match. I felt good that I was able to walk out of the store with the golf bag and that my money stayed in town.
But how many others are willing to continue to do that? Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is listed as America’s richest person, with a net worth of some $151 billion. The juggernaut he created and others are trying to emulate appears unstoppable.
I believe we may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg. How many other tasks that once required a trip can now be done in front of a screen and keyboard? Remember Blockbuster video stores? There used to be one in Shopko Plaza. Everything from college degrees to consulting with a doctor is now available on the internet, along with just about anything you want to buy.
As for Shopko Plaza, city leaders have their hands full dealing with the growing vacancies. It’s harder to sell Eau Claire as a vibrant place to live with the likes of huge empty buildings and parking lots sprouting weeds and potholes. The former Kmart location that has been sitting empty for more than four years is getting harder to look at with each passing season.
Hopefully, these vacancies eventually will fill or be torn down and replaced with something useful and attractive. For now, however, I’m not sure what that might be.
After all, there are only so many “fulfillment centers” to go around.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.