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, 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 Target.com, 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.
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.