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APU Business Original

In-Store or Online Commerce: Which Is More Wasteful?

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By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University

The fifth debate of the School of Business Debate series was held on December 2. This debate’s topic was “In-Store or Online Commerce: Which Is More Wasteful?”

The debate, held remotely on Zoom, focused on whether consumers buying merchandise in person in local stores results in less waste and resource consumption than buying online. Four debaters argued for (in-store is more wasteful) and against (online is more wasteful):

  • Dr. Robert Gordon argued for (in-store is more wasteful);
  • Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth argued against (online is more wasteful);
  • Tony Sciarrotta argued for (in-store is more wasteful); and
  • Dr. David Greenfield argued against (online is more wasteful).

Dr. Kandis Wyatt served as the moderator, and Dr. Gary Deel provided an overview of the discussion topic.

Waste Is a Result of Poor Consumer Habits

Debaters agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has changed consumer habits: from buying in large quantities to decreasing in-store purchases. Also, there has been a marked increase in single-use plastics. Dr. Gordon remarked that he is within walking distance of three grocery stores, so he is lucky to have the option of buying only what is needed.

However, most consumers have opted to avoid stores and prefer home deliveries for food and consumable goods. COVID-19-safe consumption services have resulted in decreased personal transportation, more consolidation for last-mile deliveries and an increase in servitization, defined as the delivery of a service as an added value when providing products.

The Solution Is a Global Approach to a Circular Economy

Instead of focusing on the increasing amount of waste, the debaters said the focus should be on the entire circular economy. This model emphasizes principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. A truly circular economy encompasses best practices from both forward and reverse logistics operations.

While artificial intelligence (AI) and an increase in robotics operations will continue to redefine the forward logistics supply chain, Sciarrotta noted that companies are expanding reverse logistics operations to include repair, result, reuse, recycle, and refurbishing returned goods.

Returns during the pandemic have increased exponentially. Dr. Hedgepeth said, however, that having a clear reverse logistics operation to address reverse logistics will ultimately negatively affect a company’s profit.

The Human Aspect of Purchasing

Purchasing is a social activity, so companies need to understand the human aspect to buying. Many returns are based on the customer experience or its absence. In other words, companies that take time to invest in good customer relations tend to have fewer returns. As a result, customer service has expanded to include phone, email, and AI-based conversations.

Another insightful point was the idea of the library of things. This concept highlights the desire for consumers to “borrow” seldom-used items from a collective. Dr. Greenfield said this concept has already shown remarkable success in the United Kingdom, where many consumers are foregoing personal purchases and moving toward investing in life experiences. This means that people don’t want items; they want cherished memories.

The participants felt that the growth of online purchases will result in more waste.

The Future of Wasteful Packaging

The debaters noted that we are at the beginning of the end of the pandemic, with several vaccines about to be approved. However, what is unclear is how many current consumer trends will remain after the pandemic. Wasteful product packaging is an issue that needs to be addressed on a global scale. Sciarrotta noted that China has begun not accepting trash from the United States, which can have detrimental long-term effects on the domestic ecology.

The 90-minute debate ended with a friendly poll to see which side presented its argument best. The debaters who won spoke against the argument that online purchases are more wasteful. But you can be the judge by viewing the Zoom debate (passcode L9cRBS!=).

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

Edge relies on the valuable input of many different authors and contributors. Sometimes the final article is a result of a collaboration between various individuals. Rather than credit an individual writer, the "Edge Staff" account was created to distribute credit to all the people who contributed to the article's success.

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