The United States of Amazon

Downtowns weren’t just places for business; they were also centers of community. 

Before Sears, people shopped in town centers. They bought whatever they needed, chatted with distant neighbors, packed the new supplies into buckboards and went home. 

Sears Roebuck customers perused catalogues, chose products, and mailed Sears some money, whereupon Sears mailed them the product. 

Cool, huh.

In the early 1880’s Richard Sears bought a shipment of watches and sold them via mail order. That went well, so he expanded into jewelry, then, in 1887, partnered with Alva Roebuck and opened up Sears Roebuck as a mail order firm. Recognizing that local stores had limited supplies of product, Sears had the novel idea of bypassing bricks and mortar and using catalogues as a marketing device and the Post Office for distribution.

The catalogue became known as the “Consumer’s bible”. By 1895 it had 532 pages. In 1906, they took the company public. 

In 1925, Sears Roebuck started selling kits through its catalogue for making houses. (Four are still standing in Atlantic City, NJ). Around the same time, Henry Ford started selling kits for making stripped down model A’s into small trucks. He shipped pre-cut wood for truck beds and sides to local train stations, where customers “picked them up” and assembled them – thus was born the “pickup truck”.

And you also thought Ikea was an original idea.

Sears Roebuck expanded into stores. They and other stores outgrew town centers, so they built “shopping centers” outside of towns.

Sears Roebuck grew into 400 stores. It launched Allstate Insurance, Dean Witter, and national brands, including Kenmore. By mid century, Sears was the largest retailer in the country.  

That’s when an architect named Victor Gruen decided that shopping centers had destroyed the sense of community once found in town centers. So he designed something called a “mall” – a place for, not just stores, but restaurants and community gathering places, too.  Many of these malls included Sears and other “anchor” stores (big retailers that would attract other stores).

Just as shopping centers destroyed town centers, malls destroyed shopping centers. 

Economists call it “creative destruction”.

Then, as the 20th century wound down, Sears started losing momentum. Walmart and Target overtook it. The retailers who owned Sears sold it to a financial investment company, which merged it with another falling retailer, K-mart.  And, because these finance guys knew little about retailing, the Sears/K-mart combination continued sputtering. 

Today the stock that sold for $195.18 in 2007 now sells for under $4 dollars. Sears/Kmart is on the edge of bankruptcy.

About the time Sears Roebuck started its downward slide, an entrepreneur named Jeff Bezos took Richard Sears’ original idea and modernized it. He, too, cut costs bypassing bricks and mortar. He substituted the Internet for the catalogue, kept the Post Office as a delivery system, and offered a list of products that grew to thousands of pages.

He named his new Sears incarnation Amazon, after the “largest river by discharge volume of water in the world”.

From 1994, when he began selling books below retail out of his garage, until recently, Amazon lost money. Nevertheless, investors poured money into the “new” way of retailing. 

Patience has its virtue:  today, Amazon “discharges” over 3 billion products worldwide, including 564 million in the US alone. It has 100 million Prime customers. In 2017, its revenue grew 31%. Its profit topped $3 billion. Its market capitalization is about $1 trillion. That’s just below the GDP of The United Kingdom, the sixth biggest economy in the world. 

Oh, and, at $123 billion, Bezos is now the richest man in history.  

“Good for him”, you might say. Maybe. Maybe not. 

Amazon is a prime example of the “creative destruction” of the industrial era by the digital era. As such it represents both hope and fear for the future.

It is a cloud computing giant, a retail giant, a smart home device manufacturer, a healthcare startup, a pharmacy, a delivery service, and a data gatherer and analyzer – and the list is growing. It now offers more products and delivers them more painlessly to more consumers than any retailer in history. It has re-invented retail.

But Amazon is also methodically destroying, not just town centers, shopping centers, and malls, but all competition. It is not just the Sears-Roebuck of today; it is becoming the sole market place to the world. And there is really nothing out there to challenge it.

Ready or not, until another “creative destructor” or a “trust buster” like Teddy Roosevelt comes along, welcome to “The United States of Amazon”.

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My New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t like New Years Resolutions. They’re depressing. They remind me of the resolutions I made last year that didn’t make it past the bowl games.

Like being nicer to my neighbors (well, they were rooting for the other teams!). Or putting more money away for my old age (too old for that now). Or doing more writing (the problem is, in order to write you have to have something to say…). Or being nicer to 800 operators (too old for that, too). Or spending more time with my kids (What? When did they grow up? Who let them to move out of town? What!?)

But, it’s back again, New Year’s Eve. And nowhere to hide. So, here goes:

1) Thank my neighbor Mike for fixing the TV antenna. I cut cable and installed a digital antenna two years ago and the picture was never very good. Little wigglies kept appearing and the sound cut in and out. Happy to finally be rid of Comcast, I stubbornly retreated to streaming Netflix. But, as the bowl games approached recently, I got desperate. Knowing Mike is way smarter than me, I asked him to help. It took, maybe, 5 minutes for him move the signal booster from the TV to where the antenna came into the house. Presto! Now I have all channels and can still thumb my nose at Comcast. Thanks Mike!

And thanks to my other neightbors, Susan and Gene and the Lees and the rest, for their advice and friendship in spite of my charm and personality.

2) Try to be nicer to Trump fans. He is definitely going down this year (I hope) and I don’t want to gloat. That would be very unseemly. And besides a lot of his fans have guns.

3) Get a dog. Philo, my best friend ever – our family’s best friend ever – died a couple of years ago. Because of various reasons, including his special place in our hearts, I didn’t want another dog for awhile. But with the kids out of the nest and a propensity for long walks, it’s time.

4) Start that book I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve wanted to do that for years, but, without a deadline, something always came up. Dinner, phone calls, getting the computer fixed, learning the newest version of MS Word, mowing the lawn,.. dinner… Nope, this year I’ll do it. Now, what to write about…

5) Write and direct a play. That’s a lot easier. I already have a deadline. And a great story to tell. 

6) Tell my kids I love them. I’m one of those people who’s always figured actions speak louder than words. But the kids are getting older now. And I remembered recently a lesson I carefully taught them when they were still quite little: “use your words”.

7) Wash and wax the car more often. I know. I look lazy when I say that. But I have an excuse. It’s right here, somewhere…

8) Take up golf again. I played years ago, before my career and kids pre-empted 3 hour breaks. I wasn’t very good at driving or putting, but I was great at divots. Now, in semi-retirement, I actually need 3 hour activities. And where’s there’s a need, I always say.

9) Stop procrastinating and get more exercise. Yep. Get in shape again! Let’s see… Join a gym? Go for long walks? Yoga? Wow! I can’t wait to plan the perfect exercise regimen!

10) Fulfill these resolutions. It’s important to do what you say you’ll do, I always say, including New Year’s Resolutions. At least some of them. I’ll start right after the Bowl games.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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Santa and Unqualified Love

You know what the difference is between Santa Clause and the rest of us? Red clothes and a white beard!  Ho! Ho! Ho! 

Just kidding. It’s unqualified love.

Well, except for those who get coal in their stockings. 

Dogs never get coal in their stockings. Know why? They give unqualified love. “He’s just a dog”, a lot of people say. But dogs don’t have that attitude toward us. They hang out with us, guard us, comfort us when we’re down, play with us when we’re happy. They even eat really crummy food. Would you eat dog food after a hard day at work or play?

I rest my case.

Humans aren’t as forgiving as dogs or Santa. We’re constantly qualifying each other. “That person is fantastic!” we think. Then, after getting to know them better, “Oops, a flaw! Disqualified.”   

That’s why there are so many divorces. 

Happy marriages (and families) require and are nourished by unqualified love.

You know who loved without qualification? The guy whose birthday we celebrate this week, Jesus Christ. He came up with a really novel idea: instead of vengeance, he said, “Turn the other cheek” and “love thy neighbor”. It was a very cool idea for the time, kind of like the Internet in today’s world. 

Leaders of other religions had similar ideas, but he’s the guy whose birthday we’re celebrating, so I’ll go with him today.

He loved people with all kinds of flaws, small and large: from leprosy to thievery to torture and murder (including his).

He was a little extreme, of course. I don’t think most of us would love the people who killed us. But I think he did that to set an example of unqualified love.  

I have a friend whose dog just died. She’s sadder than some people are who lost a human. I think it’s because her “Jackson” loved her more than most people love each other. Unqualified love can do that.

Dogs and Jesus. I wonder if, when we leave this earth, we’ll see a dog at the pearly gates. 

“Whoa! Is that you, Philo?”  

“Yep. And I still love you even though you made me wait hours just to  take pee.”  

“Can I come into heaven?” 

“Well sure. But I’m going to pee whenever I want.  And you? You’ll have to wait until I take you out.”

I’ve been to a couple of funerals recently: the national one we all went to (on television) for President George H.W. Bush, and another one in Columbus, Ohio. They both were “Celebrations of Life”.  Both people were highly accomplished and had long marriages, flaws included. Both services included a lot of stories and jokes about loving without qualification.

We tend not to talk about people’s flaws after they die. It makes sense, in a way. Focus on the happy memories. But it doesn’t make sense in another way. Humans aren’t perfect. And our flaws help make us who we are. They frequently inform our virtues.

A virtue in one situation can be a flaw in another.

H. W. took part in the Iran-Contra scandal, for example, but saved Kuwait – patriotism was there in both cases.  The woman in Columbus led and started a number of highly successful non-profits at the same time she was raising four kids. Her secret? She did not – how should I put this – suffer fools? A flaw? Sometimes, but also a reason she accomplished so much.  

The flaw/virtue combination happens a lot. Hard work can be a virtue; being a workaholic a flaw. Sensitivity can be a virtue; oversensitivity a flaw. Speech making in public can be a virtue; speech making at home a flaw. Making a point once: a virtue, repeating it a…. (OK. I’ll stop)

Which takes us back to the notion of unqualified love. We all want it, but it’s kind of hard to get from other humans. 

So here’s my plan for 2019: we all make lists of our flaws and lists of our virtues. Next we simply eliminate the flaws (those that aren’t also virtues). And Presto! We’re shoo-ins for unqualified love. From everyone, including Santa!

Pretty cool plan, huh. I wonder why no one thought of it before?

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Winston Churchill or Kenny Rogers?

On October 29, 1941 Winston Churchill, who was the first leader to stand up to Hitler and who held England together through those first years of horror in World War II, made at speech at his boyhood school, Harrow.

In that speech he delivered one of his most famous lines: “Young men, never give up! Never give up! Never give up!! Never, never, never-never-never-never!”

The line was clearly intended to inspire, not just Harrow students, but the rest of England. And it did. It helped England stand up and fight. It inspired allies around the world.

Over time, millions more people have been inspired by it. They’ve refused to be stymied by adversity; they weathered it and worked through to success.

Imagine the world if Churchill hadn’t believed so strongly in never giving up. Imagine the US if Lincoln hadn’t been adamant in his opposition to slavery. Imagine so many things without Thomas Edison famous habit of never, ever giving up.

(Although, I guess if Washington had caved to the British we would all be speaking better English.)

“Never give up! Never give up!! Never, never, never-never-never-never!” is a very powerful approach to life.

Still, there’s a counter to that, albeit from someone just a little less heroic than Churchill. In 1978, Kenny Rogers released “The Gambler”. ”You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ‘em,” he sang, “know when to walk away and know when to run.”

Therein lies a rub for us mortals: when to choose between the philosophies of “Never, never, never-never-never-never!” and poker.

For the past year (well, probably since his father bounced that first silver dollar off his head), Trump has played poker with Congress over everything, but most of all, his 5 billion dollar wall.

This week Trump and the Congress are squaring off over whether to shut down the entire government over that one issue. The last time it was shut down in 2013, it put 800,000 people out of work for awhile.

“If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other, whether it’s through you, through military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government”, Trump told Schumer last week.

So, now there’s a Mexican standoff over, not infrastructure, not healthcare, not China tariffs, not Climate Change, not the national debt or myriad other things, but a wall for Mexico.

That’s poker.

The rest of us are like the little kid in the restaurant watching a couple at the next table fight over that second martini.

If you’re sparring over the passing lane with an 18 wheeler maybe “fold ‘em” is the better approach. If you’re trying to rush a dying friend to the hospital, “never give up!” works a lot better.

If you’re an NFL player, you can get fired for folding. If you’re a college kid you shouldn’t earn a reputation for never giving up in drinking contests. You probably shouldn’t play chicken with a Brown bear.

Relationships are really tricky; when you fight with your boy/girl friend, do you work through the problem or play poker with him/her? It all depends: are you in love or in like?

Most goals aren’t as critical as Churchill’s. Trump’s wall isn’t critical to the country; running an honest government is. It isn’t crucial for every college kid to graduate Phi Beta Kappa. It isn’t crucial for every relationship to be successful –just THE one. The only time to play chicken with a brown bear is when he’s eyeballing one of your kids for dinner.

Churchill couldn’t choose between walking or running. He had to stand fast, persevere. Presidents have a choice about winning political battles, but they don’t have a choice about doing the right thing for the country. A college student’s goal should be to “Never, never, never-never-never-never!” stop trying to learn. If that boy/girl is your best shot at happiness, you should become the Churchill of romance (Ok, that’s a weird visual, but remember, at one time he was trim and dashing – and he and Clementine did, in fact, become each other’s happiness.).

Harriet Tubman, Steve Jobs and John McCain, and so many others, from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, knew when, not just to “hold ‘em” or “fold ‘em”, but to “never give in”.

A lot of life is a poker game. A lot isn’t. Knowing the difference is key.

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What’s in Your Baggage?

I have a friend who is almost as old as I am  (OK, not really. No-one’s that old). Like many older people, that means more than one relationship, more than one career, more than one “for every door that closes, another opens”.

We were talking about successful relationships for older folks a few years ago when she offered something I’d never thought about.

“It’s all about the baggage.”, she said. “Over time, we develop idiosyncrasies, stupid habits, and emotional scars just by living life. That’s the baggage. The older we are, the more baggage. The success of a relationship has to do with how our baggage fits with the other person’s baggage.”

(Yes, this column is for older people – midlife crisis and beyond. If you’re below 35, your bags are too light; this will bore you.)

Her idea is not new. There are variations from “Turn the other cheek” to “Let he without sin throw the first stone.” But the metaphor of a suitcase filled with personality quirks and rolling beside us down life’s path really brought the concept into the “now” of life into focus.

We think age brings wisdom. And in some ways it does. But it also brings side effects from all those lessons learned, some of which aren’t full of fun. They’re all part of our baggage.

Traumatized by your parents divorce? Into the bag. Got bullied in school? Into the bag. Girl/boy friend dumped you? Your skin is brown, black, or any other color than white? Into the bag. Boss took credit for your work then fired you? Into the bag. Your perfect marriage exploded? Into the bag. Have a medical problem? An obnoxious ex-spouse? An adult kid living in the basement? Into the bag. Elderly parents to care for? Into the bag.

There’s the flip side of this, too. Can an Ivy League graduate get along with a high school graduate? If you’ve had an easy time gaining success, can you identify or be patient with someone who struggles for it? You’re really good looking; can you have a relationship with someone less so – in other words, is your love more than skin deep? If she’s a neat freak, does she freak out if you leave your pants on the floor?

And, of course, the ultimate baggage: kids. Do you have kids? How old? How many? One way or another, they’re going to be part of you and your significant other’s lives. And that’s the living part. Recently, I met a widow whose stepchildren, while their father was losing to cancer, tried to get to him to reduce her nest egg. They failed, but later fought with her over household furnishings. On his way out the door with one of her favorite paintings, the son said, “See! Blood’s thicker than water!” This to the woman who had given unqualified love to all of them for over 22 years.

That’s baggage – with a capital “B”.

Some of it is BS, of course. Little Johnny getting a flag during the soccer game should not trigger an “Angry Dad” response. Failing to get a low-rate mortgage does not qualify as baggage.  Neither does getting a ticket for jaywalking.

We take our baggage everywhere we go as a late-in-life couple. It’s in the back seat when we drive, at the party when someone brings up politics. It’s in the arguments we have, the friends we choose, the enemies we make.  It’s in the way we raise our kids, treat our elders, deal with strangers, work with the neighbors. It’s even in the conjugal bed.

The thing to keep in mind, she told me, is “when you’re older and you meet someone on a website or at a party, there’s going to be baggage and it’s going to be big. When you’re younger, it’s small and easy to manage. Not so when you’re our age. The key is to recognize when two sets of baggage won’t fit together well.”

(Did I say I was older? Sorry. She must be. By a lot. As you can see from her wisdom.)

Once you decide the baggage fits, how to avoid problems with someone you like? She brought up another old adage: “Perfect is the enemy of good”.

Or you can just stay home alone and watch old TV shows.

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