The decline of online shopping

I have been writing about online shopping for more than 25 years, starting in the mid-1990s when I became so enmeshed in it that I taught classes for IT folks to implement it in practice in their companies. I reviewed that history in an earlier post here.

Back in those early days,‚Äč I had fun assignments like trying to figure out how long it took staff from an online storefront to respond to me-as-a-customer email queries, or documenting how hard it was to actually buy stuff online. Yes, someone actually was paying me to write an article about online stuff, which then would be published in a printed magazine weeks later. It seems so quaint now.

I also had a two-day seminar at various international trade shows about understanding internet commerce, payment systems, and installing and operating your own web storefront. One group of the attendees were from the US Postal Service, who were trying to put up a storefront selling stamps. Seems simple, right? What happens when your inventory can’t reflect the actual real-time situation — then you have a lot of angry stamp collectors. As I said, fun times.

Today I want to vent about a more basic issue: why has the online storefront become such a shopping hellscape? Let me explain.

Last week I wasted about an hour of my life trying to purchase two toiletries: shaving cream and deodorant. For many things, I am not brand-sensitive, but for these two items I am. Being a Prime Family, I went first to Amazon, where I was presented by dozens of online merchants that would try to sell me the exact item that I wanted. Except, they weren’t actually Amazon itself, but third parties. Many of which had “only 2 items left” warning labels — the latest come-on employed by online scammers everywhere. Create that sense of urgency, fueled by Covid supply chain issues, and get the customer to commit NOW! I moved on.

Next was, where I was greeted by first making sure that I had captured my account password before I attempted to buy anything. Then I had to decide which of three methods to get my stuff: by mail, pickup in the nearest store (what was my zip code, since I neglected — deliberately — to have that in my account profile), or same-day delivery. Each had a raft of options depending on how quickly I needed my items. And I hadn’t yet gotten to where I actually could search for my two precious toiletries. Forget Target.

Walgreens and CVS websites weren’t much better. I almost bought something here — I can’t recall which drug store — that would have one item mailed, one that I could pickup. Only it wasn’t at the nearest store, but one a few miles away. What was I doing? That was when I came to my senses.

I closed my computer in disgust and got on with my day.

Yesterday, I resumed my quest. There is a local drugstore that is a few blocks from my house, and I happened to walk by and thought, let’s just go in and see what they have in stock. Now, this is a small family operation not affiliated with the big chains. But that is a good thing because of three reasons. First, if you call them, you can actually talk to a live pharmacist within a moment, without having to wait on hold for 20 minutes or more. Second, they don’t lock away their stuff, like the big chains do, because of theft problems. But they get around that with an interesting twist: their shelves look very bare, because only one item of a given product is put there. That is their solution to shoplifters and the effect initially is quite eerie. But they didn’t have my brands, so I went away empty handed. (The third reason is that I have gone there to get my shots, because again they are easy to deal with.)

I came home frustrated. Then I thought I would try the small grocery store literally across the street from my home. Finally — and ironically — success. After running around in circles, the solution was simple, and the prices just a little more for the convenience of not having to navigate a series of lengthy menus and other effluvia.

Mission accomplished.

So what has happened to online storefronts in the past 25 or so years? In the quest to make everyone able to buy just about anything, they have become unusable. Menus are inscrutable, choices confound, and delivery mechanisms are so plentiful that they can paralyze consumers. So as I am looking through my slide deck for those c.1997 seminars that I taught around the world, I happened upon this summary of the implications of ecommerce:

  • Consumer control of privacy is essential¬† — most folks simply want the choice of opting out
  • The granularity of control must be fine, e.g.,
    • over number and frequency;
    • over categories of interests; and/or
    • over (indirect) dissemination to third-parties

In some respects, we have come a long way since those early days. In others, we are still learning these basic concepts. And next time I need something, I will head across the street to my local shop first.

7 thoughts on “The decline of online shopping

  1. Hi David,
    Thanks for this. I was intrigued and got a good laugh, good sense of humor and the irony of it all. We’ve been around the block technology-wise for sure. With all of these “sellers”, it ends up that the small store across the street has what we need.

  2. My online shopping habits are different than most. I do not have an Amazon Prime “membership”. I rarely shop Amazon, only doing so when it has the absolutely best deal on what I want to buy. I am a skeptic when I see that the seller is not Amazon itself, but it is surprising how many retailers sell their stuff on Amazon and eBay, often at better prices than their own websites. Most of my buying on line is tech stuff, but I have also bought name brand clothing and shoes and several other items not available in local stores.

    The fact that Amazon allows so many scammers and sellers of outright junk does not put it in a favorable light.

  3. I’ve shopped heavily online for years. While I believe in supporting bricks and mortar shops, esp small/family run outfits, their inventory has gotten thinner over the years. And the more people shop online, the worse that will likely get because they can’t compete. Books are one example: the odds of finding a particular title at a bricks and mortar Barnes & Noble are fairly slim, but I can always find it on Amazon. I respect my friends who never shop at Amazon because of how they treat employees etc but if I looked for items elsewhere I’d waste many hours. I would also be put off at’s requiring you to log into your account to even browse items. It’s even worse if you have to navigate delivery options first. At least, on Amazon, you can look at what’s available before going through all that. And sites that offer to store my credit card info, no way, I avoid like the plague. It’s OK if Verizon and the electric company store that info because I like the convenience of having bills paid automatically each month. But when I shop online, I never want them storing my credit card info or my zip code. Too many criminals would love to break into their records and get that info. BTW, I didn’t realize the “only 2 items left” warning labels on sites like Amazon were scams to get you to “buy right now.” As for Amazon Marketplace vendors, my only hesitation to shop there is for orders not fulfilled by Amazon, there may be no tracking number issued, so I don’t get a heads up about when the package is likely to be delivered. (If an Amazon order is passed onto the postal service, I do get a notice because I use Informed Delivery, though unfortunately that only shows a number and the expected date – not the shipper- so I don’t know what’s coming, though I do know when.) Porch Pirates are a real problem so I need to know when to expect a delivery. Last year, I spent $200 and several hours assembling an unsightly large black box for my porch for parcels, which is used by delivery guys only about half the time. Amazon is mixed, Fed Ex is terrible (he stands on the sidewalk and tosses the package towards my porch), UPS is the best, USPS is pretty good about using the box. I have 3 signs on my porch directing delivery people to please put parcels in the box, yet my video doorbell footage often shows the driver spending several minutes looking around for where to place the delivery – then laying it on the deck of my porch in plain sight, right next to the prominently-labeled box where it belongs. Sheesh. Off topic, I’ll admit, but sometimes I’ll go to an actual physical store rather than shop online if I can’t be home when a delivery is expected due to the ever-present risk of theft.

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  5. The proliferation of more and more features in applications has lead me to drop more and more online services. I don’t want an app to do something I can do online. And I most certainly will not continue to shop with a service that thinks it’s cool to be usable only as an app.

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