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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Amazon in Italy: A Clash of Culture?

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

A recent article in The New York Times by Adam Satariano and Emma Bubola speculated that Italians increasingly using Amazon for purchases may permanently alter the country’s commercial culture. 

I am not so certain.

To be sure, we have personally seen the increased presence of Amazon deliveries in our small village during the past three years. We purchase products ourselves through Amazon. A couple of years ago, we were among the few people here who did. And the delivery service was erratic, sometime taking a week or more.

Now, virtually every time we set foot onto the main commercial street a few hundred feet away, there is at least one DHL, Fedex, or UPS truck with its driver unloading piles of Amazon boxes. The Italian postal service is part of the distribution; often its little colorfully-marked van screeches to a halt at our front door. Moreover, the delivery time for orders now is rarely more than a few days and is most often under 24 hours. In our relatively remote location. Clearly, Amazon has significantly stepped up its infrastructure of distribution.

As the author of the piece observed, the three month long, very strict lockdown, with severely curtailed access to many businesses. This likely got many Italians more familiar with the process of ordering online and having items delivered. Many shops in Italy are reluctant to take credit cards because the banking fees are too high for their small, family-owned operation. Amazon is more than happy to take a card number.

However, while this may have added another purchasing choice for Italian households, I’m not convinced that this represents a fundamental change in the culture. One that will cause local businesses to close. Rather, its simply becomes another option in the marketplace.

The Italian government terminated the widely enforced lockdown four months ago. Aside from most people still wearing masks and restaurants blocking off seating areas, almost the entire country has returned to the state prior to the onslaught of covid-19. Since we can now travel freely, we have. We have been to dozens of cities — large and small — since early June. We have traveled through our region, a territory somewhat analogous to a state in the U.S. 

Italy stands in sharp contrast to the situation reported in the media and confirmed by friends and relatives in the U.S. in one immense regard. We have seen no restaurants close permanently. We have seen no shops close and disappear. We enjoy the same charming cafes and coffee bars that we always have. I’m sure there have been instances of closures somewhere, perhaps in the hard-hit cities in the north. But we have not seen any. Not a one.

I have asked myself why this is. These are small, often family-owned, businesses with slim profit margins. How could they all survive being shut down for a quarter of a year? How come we do not see any big plastic banners proclaiming: “Going out of Business Sale” strung across storefronts? Indeed, shops are back in business; restaurants are so booming that one now needs a reservation almost every night. 

I would posit several reasons for this. Some temporal, others deeply embedded in the culture.

First, the Italian government, following the initial period of confusion and chaos that resulted in more than 30,000 deaths, put a plan into action. People were told to stay home. And they did. We were allowed to shop for food but only one person per household at a time. Masks were required and people without masks were given hefty fines. 

Italians were admonished to temporarily give up their natural propensity to hug and kiss upon greeting one another. They stopped and substituted the elbow bump. People saw the seriousness. And they saw they could take individual actions. Even today, four months after the end of the lockdown, people are wearing masks and bumping elbows. But this hasn’t ended socializing in the least. We have been to parties, dinners, lectures, and concerts and have met friends for drinks. People are simply more cautious and cognizant of their own behavior.

So far as I know, Italy is the only country to have dropped down dramatically on the COVID charts kept by international health organizations. The number of deaths per day in the low double digits. The ranking in infections has dropped from the top six to, currently, number twenty. I believe something else is responsible for this besides government decrees. Something that is a fundamental part of the culture. Something that, at one time at least, the U.S. had, but has sadly seemed to have lost in recent years.

That is a sense of community. Of our being responsible to each other. To make sure we aren’t harming others by our own individual actions. 

Since moving here, we have come to understand and appreciate something we really never saw as tourists. As a tourist, you are focused on the physical surroundings, the natural beauty, the charm of towns, the allure of the blue green sea. 

As a resident, you build relationships. Relationships require both respect and some degree of affection. You are emotionally connected to another person enough to care about their health and well-being. That is essentially behind the heartfelt and intimate greetings that people give to one another every day.

But beyond the superficial manifestations, there is a richer, deeper sense of connection. We experience it every day. Being brought up in a different society, it is at times still startling. People genuinely want to help, want to see you happy, and offer advice or assistance if you need it. It is an enthusiasm for living with other people, knowing them, understanding their quirks, their preferences, their family members, their interests. 

These relationships get reinforced constantly, even if its only in a matter of minutes. A quick chat in a sidewalk café and I know our car mechanic is soon off on his seasonal hunting of birds. One of the local baristas calls out from her doorway and asks how I’m doing, knowing that I had a recent medical procedure. The woman at the bakery drops us a few extra sweet biscuits into the bag because she wants us to try them. We always exchange greetings with the older gentlemen who strolls along the streets each day. The sense of being part of a community is palpable.

People know that shopping locally helps their neighbors and their families. So shop they do, have friendly conversations, share latest news, and perhaps chat about an upcoming festival. Making purchases isn’t just a commercial transaction – an exchange of money for goods or services. Its about reaffirming your connections with other people. 

Amazon may make an inroad into buying behavior. But its not going to change the culture.

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

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