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Online vs. in-person shopping? Two shoppers debate. | Pro/Con – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Nobody likes to see thousands of retail stores closing, but for some, in-person shopping is less of an option.
The way we shop has changed dramatically. For more and more people, their purchases are accompanied by the sound of a click of a mouse, rather than a ping of a cash register — and this trend began long before a pandemic scared many others away from in-person shopping.
Still, as anyone who has bought anything via the internet can attest, there are drawbacks to online shopping. When you can’t see or touch an item, you can never be totally sure what you’re going to get. What’s more, the growth of online shopping hurts our friends and neighbors who own brick-and-mortar shops, thousands of which have been closing in recent years. This wave of closures has been called a “retail apocalypse.”
We asked two Philadelphia shoppers: Is in-person shopping the way to go this year?
Have you finished your shopping? Because that thing everyone was saying about start your online shopping early because shipping will take much longer this year? Yeah, it’s true. I know, because this year I shopped entirely online.
That’s because the other thing that’s different this year (aside from supply chain issues and delayed shipping) is me. On April 4, 2021, my life changed dramatically. I went for a hike with my husband, a good friend, and her daughter. On a fairly steep downhill with switchback trails, I stepped off the trail onto loose leaves. I had hiking poles, and tried to dig them in for grip, but I could feel myself pitching forward and knew I was going to fall. I remember thinking — relax, go with it, and maybe it won’t be so bad. I was wrong. It was bad.
After rolling head over feet a few times, and hitting a few rocks along the way, I stopped about 25 feet downhill from where I started. I don’t remember much, except my husband frantically saying my name, asking if was OK, and hearing my friend call 911.
I had emergency surgery that night. I had fractured several of my spinal vertebrae, one of which was twisted and pushing on my spinal cord. The surgeon removed the twist and fused several vertebrae together. I had also broken eight ribs. And I couldn’t walk.
I lived for two months away from home, at first in ICUs, and then at an inpatient rehab facility doing intensive physical and occupational therapy. But I still can’t walk.
» READ MORE: 1 in 6 Pennsylvania voters has a disability. Why don’t candidates campaign for their support?
So I have to do all of my holiday shopping online because I can’t drive myself to a store alone. And whoever takes me also needs to know how to help transfer me from my wheelchair into the car. Then, once we’re there, I have to hope that I can get into the stores — which isn’t a given, as there are plenty with a small step or narrow doorway my chair won’t fit through. Even if I get inside, I can’t use a cart or a basket, so there’s not much I can carry. I also have to be able to navigate through the sometimes-narrow aisles. The only places I know I can get into without any problem are grocery stores, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and hardware stores. I’ve knocked over displays in a candle shop because they were so close together I couldn’t get my chair through. Ditto at garden centers and restaurants.
So while I would like to shop in person and support small businesses during this tough time, being in a wheelchair makes shopping in person a royal pain.
There are also the looks of pity I get. I hate them. I know people mean well, but you wouldn’t walk past someone with a cold, and say: “Oh, you poor dear.” But I get it all the time in a wheelchair. Before my accident, I never really noticed how noncompliant the world was with disabilities regulations, but now I notice it all the time. I wish there was a way to make it all better, but the fact is, it’s expensive to fit out a shop/restaurant/anything to be fully compliant.
“Before my accident, I never really noticed how non-compliant the world was with disabilities regulations, but now I notice it all the time.”
So, I shop online this season for everything, and I do it because it’s the most efficient way for a disabled person to finish their shopping. I can shop online without worry, without asking for help, without planning, and with the freedom to slowly scroll through options, and browse what I think my family and friends would enjoy. They deserve it: My accident has been tough on all of us, and getting them something nice this holiday is the least I can do.
Emily Fernberger is a financial adviser who lives in New Hope.
Hakim’s Bookstore, which my father opened more than 60 years ago, has been around long before Amazon was even an idea, let alone a competitor. And even though online shopping has become more and more popular, the city’s oldest Black bookstore isn’t going anywhere.
» READ MORE: Philly’s oldest black-owned bookstore doesn’t need to compete with Amazon
There are distinct advantages to shopping at local, brick-and-mortar stores — which I prefer as both a shopper and a proprietor. For one, you get to see and feel the merchandise, and know exactly what you are getting — no ordering something based off of a picture, then having it arrive much smaller (or bigger) than you expected (or not arrive at all). There’s also no confusion over how to use something, as when you buy our merchandise, we explain how to use it.
That, ultimately, is the main advantage of in-store shopping: the people. I’ve run this store since 1997, when my father passed, and I know every inch of it. So does everyone else that works here. We can give every shopper personalized attention, answer questions, build relationships, and even make special orders. If you want to know anything about Black history, just walk in the store and ask. We are constantly getting questions from customers who “need to know more about” any number of topics, and we can direct you to the right books and resources. If you need something different, we can talk about it and pivot in another direction. A computer can make recommendations based on algorithms, but not based on conversations.
And if you have a problem with whatever you buy, you can just bring it back, and have a human interaction about it. No inconvenience or cost of shipping.
A store like Hakim’s is more than just bricks and mortar: It’s a community. This is something my father encouraged, and I’ve continued. He put a lot of effort into mentoring and building community, including scheduling talks with local experts and authors. We’ve had to cut back because of COVID-19, but in October we hosted a fund-raiser for Haiti, featuring local authors who were born in Haiti, and Haitian food. Our area in West Philly doesn’t have many coffee shops or other central gathering places, where people in the community can gather and meet other people with open minds. We are proud to fill that role.
“A store like Hakim’s is more than just bricks and mortar: It’s a community.”
Our customers always tell us how much they appreciate that we are a family-owned business, a “mom and pop,” with decades of experience in the industry. We have a reputation of encouraging new authors and other local creators, who can come to us to ask if we will sell their books or merchandise, and get advice on how to be taken seriously in their fields. We also know what it takes to keep a physical store open, despite the challenges of online shopping and a worldwide pandemic. So when other brick-and-mortar shops open — such as Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown and Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown — someone from Hakim reached out to welcome them. Every community needs a community place like a bookstore, and we are glad they are here. That kind of connectivity between stores can be hard to replicate in a virtual business.
According to the Small Business Administration, when people spend $100 at a local business, $48 ends up in the local economy. The same amount spent at national or big box store returns only $14 home. Small businesses give twice as much to local charities and community causes as larger stores.
So when you shop at Hakim’s, Harriett’s, or Uncle Bobbie’s, you aren’t just helping those stores — you are helping the entire community.
Yvonne Blake is the owner of Hakim’s Bookstore & Gift Shop in West Philly.

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