On Shopping

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At this time of year, the tensions run high. Brawls in shopping malls and near-death experiences in the parking lot. In all of this, the face of shopping continues to change.

Sometimes, the transition in human behaviour happens very fast (like how quickly we moved from regular DVDs to Blu-ray), while other innovations happen more slowly over time (like how we went from landlines to mobile phones). Sometimes, the change is slower because the technology is more advanced, while in other instances it’s more behavioural. Ask yourself this very simple simple question: if you wanted to buy a copy of my business book, Six Pixels of Separation, where would you go? If you don’t want hassles, if you want the best price and you want to be one hundred percent certain that it’s in stock? The answer is simple: online.

Here’s a true story about just how much shopping has changed…

Last week, I presented at the Word of Mouth Supergenius conference in Chicago (organized by Andy Sernovitz and his team at Gas Pedal). At the pre-conference dinner, Sernovitz was talking about a product he recently purchased with another conference guest. As he tried to explain it, he whipped out his iPhone, hopped on Amazon.com and showed the person what, exactly, he was talking about. The person then took out their iPhone, fired up the Amazon iPhone app and instantly bought the product. Both people are also members of Amazon Prime ($80 gets you unlimited and free two-day shipping, or you can pay $4 more for one-day shipping. There is also no minimum order size, and Amazon always offers a no-hassle return policy). Sernovitz described this as the ultimate "impulse buy" proposition. You can buy it, have it in your hands in less than 48 hours and return it if you don’t like it.

This is not a paid advertisement for Amazon. It’s a statement about what this means about shopping and how much it has changed.

It’s not just Amazon. Many retailers and online merchants are doing more to help their customers to buy from them. That’s not what we’re discussing here. There’s also value in the "town square gathering" that is the modern day shopping mall. It’s about more than price… it’s a social and community experience as well. It also gets you out of the home, it gets you interacting with people and more (full disclosure: I’m a Mallrat). Those are two diametrically opposed ways of shopping that get you to the same result: getting a new product into your hands. So, would you rather endure the parking lot pressure and pushing and shoving through the aisles only to discover that your product is either not in stock or sold out, or would you rather do some basic comparison shopping online and get what you need, in your hands, in a day or so? Don’t answer that… they’re both unique experiences in and of themselves. The important thing to understand is that one of those ways of shopping is still very new, but it’s quickly become the most reliable and stress-free way to do things. It also provides a platform for intense competition. Some might see that as a race to the bottom in terms of price and quality of goods, while others will see this an opportunity to really provide great customer care, quality of service and a better overall experience (think Zappos – which Amazon bought for 1.2 billion dollars this past year).

We have to re-think how we think about shopping and we have to re-think how we market the idea of shopping to consumers.

What do you think?


  1. You point out an interesting conundrum – there is not yet a technological device that easily marries social recommendations and point-and-click purchases. Mobile screens, even iPhones, are too damn unwieldy. For a good laugh, scroll through Google and look at the projections for mobile advertising each year for the past 5 years — we always miss projections, and each year the forecasts keep getting lower. The problem is small screens, the heart of mobile lifestyles, make poor interfaces for anything other than texting, photography or phone calls. If we can’t even respond to ads on mobile, we can hardly manage e-commerce.
    Perhaps the Apple Tablet/iPad will be the format that finally makes portable, social commerce take off. I see the need. We just need the device.

  2. Not to nit-pick, but the transition to Blu-Ray has been very slow. It is only 6% of the market now, while after this length of time DVD’s had already taken 20% of the market from VHS.

  3. On the other hand, there are numerous expenditures of relatively low individual value, but high markup – ringones, videos, and apps for example made via mobile devices. Furthermore, a network of viable micropayment systems is running, far ahead of the situation on the “traditional” internet. Contrast this “real revenue” model to much of the internet where many valuable items or services are delivered, but no payment is made. So I would say the mobile business model is already very viable, and while there is less advertising per se, many of the transactions don’t need the traditional advertising model if sales are made without it. There is a lesson to be learned here.
    There is an upper size limit that pocketable (or pursable) devices cannot exceed, so small screens are with us to stay. Tablets are just not going to be the solution.

  4. online shopping sure beats the hassles of fighting crowds or poor service. It is also convenient. Interesting points.
    I think the in-store pick up options are an area retailers could stand out in the service area. A lot of people still like to see it, try it, and try it on before they buy it.
    With the creation of apps like “red laser” and “snaptell” along with a trend in augmented reality I could see the brick and mortar/online gap being closed soon.
    Why couldn’t those apps let you purchase the item(s) along with just getting info. Maybe they could also show you price comparisons of the product in stores nearest you and any current sales or offers.
    Maybe you search an item, restaurant, hotel etc… and see where your friends went to buy based on your current location.

  5. I do a lot of shopping online, and there are definitely pros and cons. A major drawback is when a service provider states something will ship by a given date, and you receive a subsequent e-mail (usually around the targeted ship-date) saying it’s backordered, and delayed.
    I recommend against online shopping if the purchase is date-driven (X-mas, birthdays). Online works best if you nail a great deal, and don’t care about the delivery date.

  6. Mitch,
    Interesting observation. More so , since this is an ideal instance of reiterating something we shoppers feel & understand but somehow fail to get the real picture.
    I am not a big shopper , quite contrary to what my gender has been categorized under, but whenever I do shop, I try to give the experience an even mix of both worlds. Interacting with a real person at check out, where I not only share my wallet but also my purpose of the purchase and some other minor mindless details, helps me to unwind. It’s the human touch factor.But I hear you. Online shopping is hassle free, easily comparable and a silent , pleasant touch of button experience. We just make that choice.
    Best of luck with all your good work.

  7. You had me, then you lost me. So many people are living check to check so impulse buy is not in their vocabular. The merchant that will survive the current economic condition will do so because they found a way to help the current embattled consumer. You talk about $80 aps on $300 phones. Don’t forget their are masses of people wishing for a $300 a week job and they could care less about about the ability to buy at the click of a button. You can’t buy milk and bread that way. You lost me.

  8. Shopping has and will continue to change, though I don’t find the hassle to be the primary driver, rather time- if you need something, you can’t chance that Amazon will deliver in a day or two and you buy retail.
    As for Zappos, well, they’re a poor choice of models- unless of course, you’re loaded with capital and can cruise along with razor thin margins until purchased.
    Everyone touts their amazing service, overlooking the cost of this service and the fact that being the very best in the world at this approach, still left them teetering on failure for their entire life.
    I think it’s a great example of how giving people what they want, even if they don’t want to pay for it, doesn’t make for good business. They built it, the masses came and they just eeked out a profit- seems like a “Don’t try this at home” candidate if there ever was one.

  9. Online shopping has also hugely impacted how I shop as a non-American. Although I can’t really reap the benefits of Amazon Prime I constantly compare prices in local stores to prices online. Sometimes even after factoring in an additional 50% of the online price for shipping/import duties I still pay half the price I’d pay locally. Tough luck for the eye-gouging local merchants.
    My biggest annoyance shopping online now is companies who don’t get that the Internet is global and refuse to accept non-US credit cards. Certain stores have even told me to provide a copy of the front and back of my credit card and a copy of my passport before they’ll accept my order.
    Yeah right, I’ll trust you with the front and back of my credit card AND passport when you won’t trust me to process a $10 purchase?

  10. Interesting take on shopping.
    For certain itmes, like business books and other non-emotional purchaes, I can see the web dominating. However, there must be something to the whole in-your-face shopping experience.
    Why else would retailers and the like continue to invest in various bricks and motar shopping venues?
    I would love to read your thoughts on this.

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