Hello French Fries!
When I graduated high school, I was excited to be leaving the south and my hometown of Marietta, Georgia for college up north. One of the things that truly got my juices flowing was the idea of experiencing real winters. As a Southerner, and especially one from Georgia, we never got snow except maybe once every 2-3 years, and then only at night and it would melt by noon the next day. I wanted my winter wonderland experience! A decade later, I wake up on mornings like today where there’s a blowing snowstorm and 4 inches on the ground. As I’m digging my car out so I can get to work, I sit there and think to myself “Why can’t I make the smart choice like my brother and my parents and move to South Florida where I don’t have to deal with this crap every winter?!?!” Oh the power that is real knowledge…
…and for the power of my rant of the day: So what does the term ‘Americana’ invoke in your imagination? When I think of Americana, the image of a small close-knit town pops into my head. Probably somewhere in the South, Midwest or along route-66 heading through the Southwest and into California. Towns with the white picket fences, popular high school football teams, and cute gingerbread looking homes. These are towns where everybody knows each other’s names and rides their bikes all over. Personally, I tend to call these towns ‘Music Man towns’ because each and every one of these towns could be a stand in for the town from the Music Man, which was one of my favorite movies as a child. These idealized towns that I have imagined all share a common town square or plaza in the center of town, with a gazebo, park, and maybe a memorial to those who died in the war (the small town I grew up in, Marietta, had a gorgeous town square with a gazebo, fountain and a mock train for the kids to play and ride). They also all share a main street or set of streets surrounding the central plaza with mom and pop shops like a pharmacy, fashion boutique, ice cream shoppe or soda fountain, haberdashery, a movie theater with some quaint but overused name like ‘the Bijou’, a town hall and a watering hole.
Now, while I could probably have just described the idealized mid-century image of tens of thousands of towns across America, we no longer live in the mid-20th century, and small town America, with it’s quaint central commercial districts has been suffering a long and tortuous decay. The economic forces that have decayed small town living were not overnight phenomenon. Many small towns were started as agricultural, ranching or industrial manufacturing settlements. Some date back to colonial times, when the Dutch, Swedes and English established colonies on the eastern seaboard, while the French settled in the Mississippi valley, the Spanish in Florida and the Southwest, the Russians in the Northwest and Alaska and the Danish in the USVI. All these colonial settlements were centered on small towns and cities that had a shared industry or agriculture tying their residents together. For nearly two centuries after American independence, this purpose that drove small towns did not change. However, in the era after the Second World War, change finally caught up.
World War Two left most of the industrial powers of the world in physical and economic ruin. The United States and Canada, being protected from the Axis powers by two vast oceans, were the only industrialized nations to escape the war relatively unscathed. In fact, America was in a great position, since it had the industrial and financial ability to fund and rebuild Europe and Asia after the war. The United States did this through the Marshal Plan, where they invested $22 billion (roughly $190 billion today) in the rebuilding of Europe and Asia. These investments allowed the American economy to become the central node in the global economic system as they reaped the benefits of their investments. However, this financial growth and prosperity of the American economy, rooted largely in the legacy of it’s small towns, ended up initiating their decline.
The success of the Marshall Plan allowed Europe to rebuild, and as their factories came back online, Europe’s demand for American manufacturing began to decline. This lead to a shift of American manufacturing to products used by the Agricultural industry, which has long been the foundation of America’s economy. America began to enter a post-industrial era where the service economy began to supersede agriculture and manufacturing as the focuses of the American economic system evolved. With the rise in automation in factories and agriculture, and with the service industry focusing job growth upon large urban cities, small towns and their basis in industry and agriculture saw their way of life change.
As the job market dried up in small towns, younger mobile residents began moving away to urban areas in search of jobs and employment. Those who remained were often left impoverished, worse off than their parents due to the stark economic situation, and left with little disposable income to spend in the commercial centers of their towns. The struggle of their would-be consumers in turn caused the town shops to struggle. However, not all the shops closed up, some were able to innovate and survive. As suburban sprawl enlarged the cities, once rural small towns became peripheral suburbs with heavier foot traffic that allowed resilient mom and pop stores to thrive once again.
This is a tech blog, so you must be asking yourself why am I talking about sociological issues that are at best loosely related to technology? The history of small town economies I just provided is setting the stage for me to introduce the macroeconomic effects of online retail. As America has entered the 21st century, and internet has become as important of an utility as telephones or electricity, the rise of online shopping has become the new threat to small town economies. On August 11th, 1994, a CD of Sting’s ‘Ten Summoner’s Tails‘ album was sold to a Philadelphia resident by NetMarket.com, sparking a new age in retail shopping. As access to the internet has become more commonplace, people find it less stressful and more convenient to order what they want from the internet and ship it right to their front door instead of going to various different stores trying to find the same item. Why fight through the crowds on Black Friday when you can get the same deals on Cyber Monday without the hassle? Furthermore, online giants like Amazon have started to corner the market on retail shopping, and while big box stores like Walmart and Target have the resources and infrastructure to set themselves up to compete with Amazon during in the digital realm, small town brick and mortar stores lack the resources to compete.
After suffering from the decline of manufacturing, the emergence of online shopping may be appear to be too much for many small town economies to bear. This has lead to a ghost town feel to the commercial centers in some of the hardest affected small towns as their brick and mortar businesses go bankrupt. It’s not just mom and pop stores that are suffering. Giants like JCPenny, Kmart and Sears, once hallmarks of the retail business, are struggling. The cathedrals of American consumerism, shopping malls, are shutting down in large numbers. 2017 has been a terrible year for traditional retail. I remember in my teenage years, the mall was one of the most popular places to hang out and look cool. Heck, there was a movie about it when I was a kid. However, without adapting to the online retail trend, I fear that the shopping malls that I enjoyed in my youth will be relegated to a cultural fascination of past generations, much like how diners today exist merely for their 1950’s nostalgia.
In order to survive, brick and mortar stores will need to be able to adapt to the digital age. It’s no longer good enough to have a storefront with a findable address, they need to have a ‘digital storefront‘ as well, a website to showcase themselves to virtual foot traffic on the internet. Not only should they advertise in their local paper and high school football games, but also find what sites their targeted clientele hang out at and advertise on the internet. In the past couple years, small businesses that have adapted have embraced online retail. They’ve redesigned their physical store space as a showcase while focusing in equal measure on their digital store space. Humans are, after all, social creatures. There is still a place for the brick and mortar store. Despite the convenience of online retail, there is nothing that can replace walking into a store front, looking and feeling the product you are eyeing with tactile evaluation, and speaking with experts about your needs and the product to best suit them. In recent months, this is something that online retail giants have been noticing.
Like politics, society and culture operate on a pendulum. When something new and exciting, like online retail, takes the world by storm, eventually people will realize what they are missing from the traditional alternative. They will want to swing back to that familiarity. Small town retailers have the benefit of being a neighborhood store where you can get the localized, tactile experience from a friendly face instead of a faceless giant in the shadows of the internet. Online retailers are now getting involved in the brick and mortar business for this exact reason. Amazon, which has been the bane of many independent bookstores, is now opening it’s own physical bookshops. Amazon also bought Whole Foods to have a physical neighborhood presence. The online stationary giant Vistaprint is now opening it’s own physical stores to market their products in person. The online eye glasses retailer Warby Parker has also recently started opening physical stores simply because the lack of a physical presence was the main complaint by most of their customers. For small towns, this cultural swing back into valuing physical stores, even by online retail giants, should be a welcome development. While many issues, such as economic changes and declining populations still continue to present an existential threat to small towns, their pension for brick and mortar, locally focused businesses is something that Americans still crave. It’s a familiar and friendly feeling from the comforts of the idyllic past life that present respite from the faceless, overbearing and scary new world of online retail.
Now for my tech tip of the day: As an experienced IT professional, I rely heavily on hotkeys to ease my day to day user life. Hotkeys are keyboard combinations that act as a shortcut to navigate your system. So, I’m going to share some of the most common and useful ones. Today’s post I’ll focus on Windows hotkeys. Tomorrow’s post I will outline Apple hotkeys.
Locking your keyboard: In my very first post, I detailed this hotkey.
Toggle between open windows/programs: Alt + Tab
Minimize all windows/show desktop: Windows + M
Show all open windows/programs: Windows + Tab
Open new tab in a browser: Ctl+ T
Open recently closed tab: Ctl+Shift+T (you can do this repeatedly and it will open the most recent tab not yet reopened)
Toggle between tabs: Ctl + Tab
Select all: Ctl + A
Copy: Ctl + C
Cut: Ctl + X
Paste: Ctl + V
Undo: Ctl + Z
Redo: Ctl + Y
Open: Ctl + O
Save: Ctl + S
Print: Ctl + P
Close window: Ctl + W
Quit Application: Ctl + Q
I hope you are all safe and warm if you are enjoying winter weather like we are here in Denver. This is supposed to continue into the weekend for us, so yay White Christmas! Until next time…
The ketchup is in the sauce.