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Zaleski: Online shopping erodes spirit of the season

People who worship at the altar of the Internet and associated new technologies, rather than admit the obvious — they merely are tools — are in a happy frenzy that initial online holiday sales were up 17 percent over last year. The Black Friday weekend is said to have been good for online sales. It’s the beginning of the end of the physical act of shopping, online aficionados preach. No, it’s not.

What is lost in heady online shopping statistics is that the slice of online sales is very small when compared to the 85 percent or more of retail sales that are done in the traditional manner: hands-on at a mall or downtown. A 17 percent increase in that context is not much to crow about. Furthermore, that relatively tiny segment of sales is done at online sites that are owned by — you guessed it — old-line big-box retailers. They own it all — on the retail floor, in catalogs and online.

One of the sales pitches for online buying is the “free shipping” scam. (The catalog people have been doing it for years.) Free shipping, really? Not hardly. Anyone with a lick of sense knows the cost of “free” shipping is built into the price of shipped merchandise. Someone’s paying, and it’s you. On the other hand, when you make a purchase at a local store, you carry the package to the car, to the house, to the holiday party, to the Christmas dinner. Now that’s free shipping.

OK, I concede that online shopping and shipping are convenient when gifts are going to family across the country. Do it all the time. But buying at a local store and using the Postal Service, UPS or FedEx work well, too. And it seems more thoughtful, more sincere to handle the package personally when it’s a holiday gift.

Finally, the very act of Christmas shopping in holiday-lighted stores with others comports beautifully with the spirit of the season. The bustle of a big mall or the warm greetings from owners of downtown stores complement the real meaning of gift-giving. It’s a communal imperative that is part of the societal fabric.

I might be a tad old-fashioned (hallelujah for that), but I believe the trend to online everything is a symptom of isolation and me-itis — an erosion of shared community values, much as “social media” in practice is shallow and anti-social. You have 167 “friends” on Facebook? Get real. Twitter’s tweets have the depth of an oil slick. Selfies? It’s all about me, isn’t it?

Go shopping in the spirit of the season. Enjoy the happy burden of arms aching with holiday gifts. Rub elbows with strangers who are sharing the joy of finding gifts for their loved ones. Smile a warm smile, even as cold frosts your face and traffic makes you crazy. Hum a grand old holiday hymn as you wait in an interminably long checkout line. Say “Merry Christmas” at every opportunity.

You can’t do that stuff at home alone in front of a computer screen. Ebenezer Scrooge would love online shopping.

Zaleski is the editorial page editor at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at