Genie in a smartphone
“It’s like having a genie,” a friend told me in one of our virtual conversations, as we were discussing the online economy. “With an unlimited number of wishes.”
Based in a condo in BGC, she was referring to the ease with which products and services can be accessed nowadays, without ever leaving one’s home. You need some fertilizer for your house plants? Add to cart. Suddenly inspired to buy an exercise mat after a friend told you how yoga made her sleep so well? Select color. Add to cart. Feeling hungry after all the shopping? Add to basket, with all kinds of restaurants and grocery stores to choose from. Your order is being processed, the rider will be arriving soon.
This phenomenon has been around for a long time, and it has long been foreshadowed by other countries’ experiences—think Amazon Prime and Same-Day Delivery—but it expanded by leaps and bounds amid the pandemic. Even academic presses, once located in hard-to-reach locations inside universities, have now brought their titles to Lazada and Shopee, making authors, from Abad to Zafra, within reach. Home testing for COVID-19—antigen or PCR—can be requested through apps, and, of course, online payments, too.
Another effect of the pandemic is to broaden the reach of this online economy to the provinces. At the height of the ECQ, I had to ask my Metro Manila-based friends to ship coffee beans, but now, most products can be shipped to most provincial addresses at prices much cheaper than in grocery stores (case in point, grains like quinoa and nuts like pistachios).
Finally, the efficiency has also improved: While deliveries in Laguna used to take weeks (if they arrive at all), my personal record, from order to delivery, is 28 hours. In Metro Manila, of course, it’s even more immediate: Once, I had misplaced my laptop charger and there was an important webinar coming up in a matter of hours. I scoured Facebook Marketplace for a replacement and within minutes, someone was arranging to send it to me via Lalamove. By the time the webinar started, my laptop was comfortably charged.
Such is the growing importance of the online economy that the only sales that appear to matter right now are those online. The “11.11” (Nov. 11) sale was greeted by sellers and buyers alike with much fanfare, with Lazada hosting a virtual concert on its eve featuring the likes of SB19, Mimiyuuuh, and Ben&Ben. As expected, Lazada and Shopee are already touting Dec. 12—“12.12”—as the “Grand Christmas Sale” or “Big Christmas Sale.”
All of the above are a radical departure from just a year ago, when the mall was still people’s ultimate pasyalan and one-stop shop, where everything could be done from working out in Anytime Fitness to working in Starbucks. Arguably, the malls are still the preeminent quasi-public spaces in our cities, which is why public health officials fret over the loosening of further restrictions. (The other day, Metro Manila mayors announced they still would not allow minors inside malls.)
At least for now, however, the pandemic has taken away the joy or comfort of being inside the mall, with its regimented pathways; all the paperwork and “rituals of disinfection” required just to enter each store, not to mention the need to don a face shield on top of a face mask, and of course, the fear of infection—which, however mitigable, is still much higher indoors than outdoors.
Once the pandemic is over, malls will likely be back with a vengeance, but virtual stores have made inroads that are likely to remain. For me, for instance, there’s no buying nuts and grains in the mall again, especially since I can buy them much cheaper online. Surely, many sukî relationships would have already been forged by the time the quarantines are finally lifted; such is the inevitability of the online economy’s continued growth that even SM itself is a “tenant” of ShopeeMall and LazMall.
But speaking of physical malls and their virtual counterparts, who benefits from the online economy apart from giants like Grab, Lazada, and Shopee? Small and medium enterprises may have found a chance to compete, but will their riders and workers fare any better than the malls’ contractual employees? What happens to all the packaging used to wrap our kettlebells and sleigh bells? And what new forms of exclusion do all of the above engender, given that money is the real genie?
In my next column, I will be reflecting on the economic, environmental, and social implications of the continuing shift to the online economy.
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