The fast-evolving realm of online commerce has brought massive changes to the way people shop.
Major e-retailers offer consumers competitive prices, easy at-home browsing and buying and, in many cases, free delivery after just a few convenient clicks. Meanwhile, online resale sites such as Craigslist and Kijiji have essentially turned the entire world into a flea market, affording bargain-hunting buyers and internet-savvy sellers the chance to complete direct cash-for-goods transactions in a way that’s quick and easy for all concerned.
But in addition to introducing a new level of cyber-shopping convenience, e-commerce has also introduced previously unknown perils into the consumer experience. The anonymity that is a hallmark of online conversation and commentary has allowed some indivduals — whose interest lies more in predation than procurement — to use proposed resale-site purchases as a ruse to lure unsuspecting participants into dangerous settings where robbery and assault can await.
It’s with that in mind that a tip of the consumer-safety cap is due to the Winnipeg Police Service for declaring last week that four of its main stations — central, east, north and west — have been named designated exchange zones that welcome buyers and sellers looking for a safe and secure place in which to finalize transactions that have been arranged online.
"We’ve said all along that members of the public — whether buying or selling — could conduct those transactions at police stations," WPS spokeswoman Const. Tammy Skrabek said last Wednesday. "Now we’re just formalizing that, putting up signs where they can go."
City police dealt with about 60 incidents last year of robberies involving people seeking to complete a buy/sell transaction with a stranger with whom they had communicated online. WPS officials have also noted an increase in the number of stolen goods being offered for sale online.
As such, this is an initiative that makes an abundance of sense. Recent history has shown that the popularity of online buying and selling has created a need for safe spaces to complete such transactions. It’s unwise to invite strangers into your home, particularly if the e-commerce transaction in question involves electronics or other small but valuable items, and it’s equally imprudent to venture into unfamiliar locations to meet purported purchasers who might not be what was claimed in earlier online negotiations.
A police station outfitted with security cameras would logically be among the safest possible sites for completing the in-person portion of an online sale, even if — as the WPS rightly cautions — police will not actively monitor the transactions or help e-commerce visitors complete their deals. It should go without saying, but Ms. Skrabek said it anyway, that it’s recommended that buyers and sellers using the new safe-trade locations should do so during daylight hours when the stations are open to the public and fully staffed.
It must be noted that the congratulations directed toward the WPS are for its initiative but not necessarily for its innovation — the concept of safe police-station spaces for online-sale exchanges has been in practice in cities in Ontario and British Columbia for several years, so Winnipeg is merely catching up with what other locales have successfully instituted.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for launching a program that allows Winnipeggers to safely engage in an increasingly popular way of doing business, which carries the added bonus of potentially making the public feel a bit more comfortable about police stations and the personnel within.
Any way you look at it, that’s a pretty good, safe deal.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.