Time / Out of Time

Among the harder tasks a father has is figuring out what in the world to buy his young children for their birthdays.  I mean, huh?  Mommy it is who tends to know what Small Child is hankering after; it’s Mommy whom Small Child will nag and whine about That One Special Thing.  Daddy, who’s doing well enough to remember birthdays in the first place, notices predilections only to the extent that they generate small pieces of things for him to step on as he walks across the living room floor at night and without the light on.

I was thus tickled to enjoy an afflatus the other night while cooking supper for my boys.  The youngest is mustard keen on military history in general, and the Civil War in particular.  Last summer in lieu of flying out to visit his cousins (normally this trip is by a wide margin the high point of my boys’ entire year) he decided he wanted to go to the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg.  So we did:  Nine days, eight nights in a tent, 2,512.8 miles in a non-air-conditioned minivan, six states, five battlefields (in order: Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg, New Market, and Appomattox Court House), two museums, a national parkway (Blue Ridge), and a mountain (Mt. Mitchell).  And two store-bought meals the whole time.  The whole time he never once complained about being hot, tired, thirsty, hungry, or bored.  He’d turned seven less than three weeks before we left.

So there I am cooking, and I popped the CD soundtrack from Ken Burns’s The Civil War into the player.  My youngest loves that music as well, and has been known to put it on very quietly to fall asleep to on more than one occasion.  And then I had my afflatus:  While we have, somewhere, a 20-plus year-old copy of the series on VHS, it’s been about six years since we’ve had a player capable of playing them without eating the tapes.  Five minutes on Amazon.com’s mobile phone app and the commemorative DVD set is on its way to my front door, expected delivery Thursday.  Annual anxiety over picking birthday present: solved.

But that prompted some thoughts.  For starts, that Amazon.com mobile phone app makes impulse buying childishly simple.  I seldom use it but when I do it’s for something I already know I want, and every time I’m struck by how easy it is.  But secondly and more to the point, if I had to get in my van and go dragging all over hell and half of Georgia looking in bricks-and-mortar stores for those DVDs, new or used, I’d never get it done.  Between work, grocery shopping, after-hours client meetings, cooking, laundry, dishes, homework, and chasing the boys to bed at 8:20 p.m., by the time I’ve got time to think about looking for Stuff, all the boots-on-the-ground retailers have gone home to chase their own children to bed.  The wife’s not in much better shape: she takes the boys to school on her way to work, and she’s the one who drags them to such after-school things as they have going on.

I know we’re not alone.  Our children aren’t in travel sports leagues, they don’t have musical lessons or recitals, or (God forbid) dance, or those other things which will pull the entire oxygen out of parents’ existences.  But I know full many parents who have all that on their plates and more.  Make our hypothetical parent a single parent and now you’ve really got problems making it all come together.

I’d be fascinated to look at Amazon.com’s sales data.  I’d like to see when they sell their products, by what time of day.  I’d wager a small sum that the bulk of their weekday sales of specifically children’s items occurs after 7:30 p.m., measured by the customer’s location.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me either to find out that even non-identifiably children’s items are skewed towards the evening hours.  So much of the debate we hear about Amazon’s business model focuses on how it “deprives” state and local government of sales tax revenue, and how unfair that is to bricks-and-mortar stores.  But what if what’s driving Amazon’s success is not just any perceived price differentials but the time factor.  Where I live if I wanted to buy in person something like that DVD set that I spent all of 3.5 minutes ordering last night, inclusive of trying to remember my account password, I’d get to drive somewhere between 45 minutes to a full hour just to get to the stores which might potentially have it in stock.  And then I’d get to hoof all over at least several of those stores, because I am perfectly comfortable that no bricks-and-mortar operator can afford to keep commemorative editions of 20-year-old documentaries on the shelf on the off-chance that someone’s going to toddle by and take it off their hands.  And at the end of the expedition, pissed off from the traffic and looking for place to park, with four or more hours blown away, a half-tank of gas into the bargain (and at $60-plus to top off an 18-gallon tank that’s a cost I have to add to the product), and with a further hour-plus drive home staring at me (remember I’m going to start with the stores closest to where I live), I’m most likely still to have to order the damned things after all.

Given what I perceive to be a trend (dare I use the expression “remorseless”?) towards ever-increasing demands on parents’ time, what does my hypothetical shopping trip above have to say about Amazon’s business model’s long-term viability relative to their competition, or at least that competition that does not deal in bulk, gotta-have-it-tonight supplies.  I know Amazon now sells groceries and whatnot, but unless you’re someone who’s a doomsday prepper or Super Organized Beyond all Reason, are you really going to buy your laundry detergent, pasta, toilet paper, and canned soup from Amazon.com?  On the other hand, if I’m running a store that deals in things that aren’t immediate-need items, that are non-run-of-the-mill items (other than hand-fabricated things like fashion accessories and whatnot), I think I have to see every travel soccer league as a threat to my livelihood.  Because every one of the out-of-town tournaments is just that much less time my customer has to do business with me.  Every two-hour Thursday evening practice is three or more hours less that my customer has to swing by my store.  An hour’s tutoring three afternoons and that’s so many shopping expeditions scuppered.

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