Amazon.com is one of the biggest e-commerce sites in the world. The Lehigh Valley has become a center for the back economy of fulfillment of e-commerce. (Photo Illustration by Kate Morrell/B&W Staff)

E-commerce evolves in the Lehigh Valley

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11:58 p.m.: In an oversized t-shirt and messy-bun, a college student sits in bed, the room lit up by her computer screen.

11:59 p.m.: The digital numbers on the top right of her MacBook Air change. She checks her Wi-Fi connection. It’s almost time.

Suddenly, 12:00 a.m.

Clicking on products. Adding to carts. Her fingers race as she types in her shipping address, billing address and credit card information. She’s been on these sites before, so the computer auto-fills the information after she enters just a few letters or numbers. She closes completed tabs as she goes, and her phone buzzes with confirmation-of-purchase emails.

Done. She sits back in her bed, lets out a sigh of relief and resumes the Netflix show she was watching just 15 minutes before the chaos of Black Friday.

With the guarantee of getting products at a specific price, and without the hassle of lines, dealing with grumpy employees or trekking from store to store, online shopping has transformed the way we buy consumer goods, all from the comfort of our beds, couches or desks.

The protocol of how society shops has changed, and not just on Black Friday. 

“I would say (e-commerce) started in force about four to five years ago, with the advent of retail beginning to shift to direct to the consumer,” said Don Cunningham, the president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation.

With the decrease of brick-and-mortar retail stores across the nation, many assume store closings also mean layoffs and an increase in unemployment. However, Cunningham said the Lehigh Valley has actually benefited from the shift.

The Lehigh Valley has become a center for the back economy of fulfillment for e-commerce with a large availability of land, strong labor pools and an ideal geographic location relative to major cities and interstates.

“We have now about 28,000 people employed in that sector, which is up from about 17,000 people just five years ago,” Cunningham said. “And the average wage — most of this is non-skilled work — has now gone up to $15 an hour, well exceeding the governmental minimum wage.”

The e-commerce industry has brought in thousands of jobs, predominantly through large distribution centers. Stitch Fix, Zulily and Walmart each have opened fulfillment centers in the Lehigh Valley. Most recently, Amazon opened a 1.1 million-square-foot warehouse in the Palmer Township area of the Valley.

Though Cunningham said the Valley is benefiting by becoming a hub of e-commerce while still maintaining most of its brick-and-mortar retail locations, he said there will be an inevitable change in the future.

Bri Durics, ’19, a Moravian student and lifelong Lehigh Valley resident, said she has noticed slight changes in store closings and shopping habits.

“I noticed in the Promenade Shops that Aeropostale closed down,” Durics said. “I personally think that it’s because there are bigger brands next to it. Also, a couple of stores in the mall have closed. A clothing store, Wet Seal, was taken out and replaced by a more specialty store.”

Cunningham said the future of large department stores is in question because of changes in consumer culture and cost structure. Nationally, stores like Sears, Kmart and J.C. Penney have closed hundreds of locations with plans to downsize even further. The big-box retailer Bon-Ton plans to close at least 40 department stores next year and already closed the Schuylkill Mall location in the Lehigh Valley. 

Yuliang “Oliver” Yao, a professor of information systems and the chair of the management department, said e-commerce has changed the requirements of running a successful business. The shift to shopping on phones and laptops has made maintaining an online presence a necessity.

Incorporating e-commerce is a must even for small “mom and pop” businesses and specialty shops. Cunningham said the outcome for these retailers will depend on their products and locations.

Bethlehem’s historic downtown area is known for its Main Street, which is filled with locally owned shops. During the winter months, tourists also flock to the area for its reputation as the “Christmas City” and the Christkindlmarkt.

Neville Gardner is the owner of Donegal Square and McCarthy’s Pub & Whisky Bar, two Main Street businesses that have started to a build an online presence.

“We just rebranded both of our websites for both the shop and the pub,” Gardner said. “We are building a brand new e-commerce site just because we think it’s a necessity to do that in order to be competitive with all of our competition.”

Gardner said while the number of orders that occur on the online component might be low, the presence allows those visiting the area to find out about the businesses and browse the selection before stopping by. Gardner said Google Analytics shows the pub and shop have garnered over 20,000 searches in the past three months. 

“You can see everything from the analytics,” Gardner said. “People get directions and then it goes straight to Google phone call, so the numbers are pretty scary, the number of people that go online and look first.”

Donegal Square, which specializes in products and apparel from Ireland, Scotland and the British Isles, features some of its products online, but Gardner said he is looking to expand the website in the future.

While the Lehigh Valley does not seem to be suffering financially from the shift to online shopping, the future of its physical retail shops remains in question.

“I think that the Lehigh Valley and Bethlehem need to embrace a new era of e-commerce,” Yao said. “If you do not have an internet presence, you are so out of touch. If you only have one store, your only impact is Bethlehem, and the towns surrounding it. But, if you have an internet presence, then you can have a worldwide or nationwide impact.”

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