Does eCommerce ‘Net’-benefit Consumers? (Pun intended.)
There is science and quasi-science. Science generally attempts to establish enough facts until a conclusion can be drawn. Quasi-science often starts with the conclusion and attempts to assemble evidence to support it. The latter isn’t a very good idea, but it happens all the time.
In asking the question in the title above, is the answer that nearly all of us as consumers would give one that is scientific, or quasi-scientific? Some would even scoff that the question is silly, as it is a settled matter that should not need examining.
Survey consumers and who won’t give a resounding ‘yes’ to the question and, if asked why, respond that discounted pricing and 60/60/24/7/365 ordering convenience are the reasons why consumers love eCommerce. But let me propose that this is a quasi-scientific conclusion and thus not necessarily a good one.
Consider it like this: isn’t the reason for buying something supposed to be to meet a want or need? And shouldn’t which model and from where be determined by that combination which best meets that want or need (in other words, provides the best total value)? Did we experiment with eCommerce and establish conclusively that our needs are now being better met than ever before, or did the temptations of a cheap price and having a global market under our fingertips seduce us into a quasi-scientific conclusion that we now no longer even question?
To the convenience of online ordering I assert this fact: only the actual placing of the order is convenient. Almost anything else that happens may be quite inconvenient, including time waiting for shipment, order mishandling & delay, subsequent back-order notifications, mis-picking (receiving the wrong item), poor fit, poor performance, returns, remote (meaning not in-person) warranty claim handling, missed expectations of the experience the product would provide, incompatibility or mistake in our own choice of product selected, the time it took to do our own self-education & research online prior to purchase, and more. But no, internet shopping is more convenient all because of the singular five-minute task of placing the order.
To the prevalence of discounting online, I assert this fact: the low price is the effect of buying-down the labor of merchants who should be working for us, but no longer do, because we have assumed all of the extra work listed above upon ourselves. Thus, we work much harder than before to be our own self-salespeople and pre-sale technicians in exchange for a lower price from a massive, minimum-wage warehouse fulfillment operation.
Look, I get it. Culturally, we trust ourselves and words on a web page more than we trust real-live salespeople with years of specific experience with a product. It’s illogical, but we just do. But every single one of us who has sought and purchased something online has horror stories to tell of hours of inconvenience and disappointment in the end with a bad choice. Then, despite the fact that we did all the solution-identification & selection work ourselves, we still want to blame someone else when something goes wrong.
In the previous retail age when most things that were purchased required a store visit but came with expert help and instant delivery, there were horror stories, too. Some salespeople lied. Some products still did not perform as advertised. Some warranty claims were a hassle. But you know what? I miss those days. It seems to me that it was always much easier to hold a human being accountable than a webpage, and things seemed to work better, last longer, and provide a better long-term value, too.
Those days are not likely to return, because the Millennials and the iGeneration on its heels doesn’t know what I’m talking about. They never experienced it.