Satellite images show online shopping’s growing footprint

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You might not see it each time you make a purchase, but online shopping takes up a lot of space in the real world. The number of warehouses built to keep e-commerce running smoothly is growing quickly, and they’re creeping closer to neighborhoods in order to meet consumers’ expectations for quick deliveries.

These images taken by satellite show how dramatically online shopping has changed the landscape of one county in California. I grew up in this county, and I’ve seen that transformation happen in person. A lot of the stuff that Americans buy passes through here. The nearby ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle about 40 percent of all goods Americans import. Once it gets off a ship, most of that stuff is quickly sent inland to “dry ports,” another term for warehouses and distribution centers that sort packages and send them off to their final destinations.

San Bernardino, Sept.07, 2007: An aerial view of San Bernardino International Airport which ha

San Bernardino, Sept. 7th, 2007: An aerial view of San Bernardino International Airport which has attracted some major businesses, like Kohl’s, Pep Boys Auto, Mattel, and Stater Bros. to establish warehouses.
Photo by Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The pandemic isn’t slowing this trend down much. There’s more demand for warehouse space because people are shopping online more. On top of that, some retailers are keeping more inventory on hand because of disruptions to supply chains during the global crisis. And items that didn’t sell as much this year as they normally do — like summer clothes — are still sitting and taking up space.

The place where I grew up is changing a lot because of e-commerce. And soon, your hometown could see changes, too. Amazon has reportedly looked into snatching up old brick-and-mortar department stores and revamping them into distribution centers to be closer to their customers.

“You can see as you leave any city nowadays you have this whole strip of warehouses dedicated to online shopping fulfillment,” says Sharon Cullinane, a professor of sustainable logistics at the University of Gothenburg. “You have to have warehouses that are closer and closer to the centers of population so that they can do these half-hour deliveries — it’s a bit mad really.”

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