Talk to any driver from UPS or FedEx and they'll tell you about their busy Christmas season. Statistics available from many sources show more people than ever did their shopping online this past holiday season.

Some major department stores had online sales rivaling their totals at the malls.

Will shopping centers some day be extinct? Will computers be the main mode for purchases somewhere toward the middle of the 21st Century? Or sooner?

It's possible. But if this happens, it will be a shame.

Retail outlets are such a vital element of local economies. They provide real estate taxes. They generate sales taxes. They often give back to the community in the form of donations to school groups, non-profit organizations, and other community endeavors.

More important, they provide employment.

Just think of all the jobs that would disappear if shopping was almost entirely done online.

The argument is that you would still need people in the warehouses and for distribution of the ordered products. This volume of employees isn't nearly what present day malls have.

It's true the Internet offers some great advantages for shoppers. When the weather is detrimental too cold, too snowy, even too hot the ordering can be done from the comfort of home. Online shopping offers easier comparison of prices and often gives you wider selection of products.

It's still not like going into a store and trying on clothing. Or seeing first-hand what the product looks like instead of depending on on-screen images that were Photo-shopped and in other ways enhanced to exaggerate their appeal.

A generation ago, teachers told their students how someday robots would endanger their employment opportunities. In some occupations, especially production facilities such as automakers, this has happened.

Now it's the computer that threatens to rob us of future employment.

Another advantage to online shopping is that major retail firms don't have to pay the overhead involved with stores.

Seldom, though, do you see the savings handed down to the consumer. Instead, the executives of the firms get bigger salaries and the stock holders get larger dividends.

So next time you have to shop, and you do all your ordering online, think of the potential consequences.

Understandably the Internet has created some great shopping opportunities, such as looking for an obscure item that is hard to find in local stores.

For the most part, though, the use of the Internet threatens the stores in your neighborhood, which in turn jeopardizes the jobs of your friends, neighbors, and even relatives.

By RON GOWER

rgower@tnonline.com