Boxes that didn’t get here

As a society, we have some collective bad habits. They might even qualify as addictions.

We seem seriously hooked on things like high-fructose corn syrup. And gasoline-powered vehicles. And cell phones. And like all addictions, each has consequences.

Our taste for corn syrup, widely used as a food and beverage sweetener since the ’70s, has brought rampant obesity and millions of cases of diabetes. Our devotion to the automobile has led to congestion and massive releases of greenhouse gases. And our obsession with cell phones has caused thousands of traffic accidents (not to mention countless dysfunctional family dinners).

These were all purported boons that became chronic banes.

The recent gift-giving season exposed another potentially damaging social addiction. We love buying cheap stuff and having it delivered fast. Once we click the button on our online shopping cart, we expect boxes of discounted merchandise to reach our front porch in three days. Or two days. Or tomorrow.

This nearly instant gratification stimulates many shoppers to click and click and click — until they can’t imagine shopping any other way.

What are the consequences of this habit? One is the reshaping of local marketplaces as retailers work harder and smarter to hold onto shoppers and profit margins. Some stores have changed their approaches to inventory and pricing. Some have sharpened their efforts to communicate with customers. Many have adopted a “clicks-and-mortar” approach that allows them to sell goods online as well as on site.

Even so, it is tough competing with Internet giants whose supply chains reach around the world and whose power allows them to demand low, low prices from manufacturers.

Some hardcore Internet shoppers got a wake-up nudge in December when the digital marketplace began to creak and groan under its burgeoning weight. At least two mega-retailers, Amazon and Wal-Mart, discovered that last-minute orders had overwhelmed their delivery partners UPS and Fed-Ex.

Sorry, they had to tell customers, your purchases won’t be arriving tomorrow. Or in two days. Or in three days. In fact, they won’t be there in time for Christmas.

This overburdened pipeline is not a one-time blip that will be fixed with better planning (and milder weather) in future years. We should expect “glitches in the next few years,” predicts the director for consumer economics at IHS Global Insight. “Whenever you’re growing at double digits like this, there’s bound to be this kind of thing happening.”

Suddenly our dependence on digital shopping doesn’t seem entirely healthy. Maybe there are still advantages to getting up from the computer and driving to a local store.