Why online shopping actually kind of sucks

Online shopping: it’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s super convenient. But in a lot of ways, it actually kind of sucks. Let me elaborate on that… in 5 confessions.

Confession #1: I’m a digital native who gets lost trying to spend money.

If you know exactly what you’re looking for, online shopping is great. You search, you find, you buy, it’s delivered.

Let’s say your headphones broke and you want to replace them with the exact same pair. Easy. You go to Amazon, type in the product name, find it, buy it and it’s shipped.

But let’s say you’re like me and you’re not interested in buying the same exact pair of crappy headphones. Now what? You go to Amazon, type in ‘headphones’, and end up with this:

hello darkness my old friend

A closer look at that screenshot:

  • 1–16 of 448.475 results
  • an extensive and largely irrelevant list of subcategories
  • a bunch of sponsored products
  • and some banners unrelated to what you’re trying to find

Turns out that if you don’t know exactly what you want to buy, online shopping can be pretty complicated. The result: no sale. More often than not, users end up without a purchase they were more than ready to shell out for.

Confession #2: I get why it has to be like this.

None of the above is exclusive to Amazon, or to headphones. I’ve had this exact experience when I was looking for a camera, a pair of jeans, and a gift for my mom.

As a user navigating a webshop, you’re constantly expected to ‘DIY’ your way through their sales funnel. That usually involves navigating through messy categories, filters and expert terms you’ve never heard of. Beyond that, a generic ‘inspiration’ page or a top 10 list is all the assistance you can expect.

In fact, 77% of users who do manage to find a product still end up abandoning their cart. Can you imagine such numbers in an offline store? At its core, e-commerce lacks the ability to provide a sense of purchasing reassurance.

And there’s a good reason for this state of affairs: It’s the technology, stupid! Just look at how e-commerce started over 20 years ago: Guy starts selling books out of his garage. Guy does really well and starts adding other product categories. Guy ends up creating a multi-billion dollar industry for listing products and shoving boxes around.

From the start, e-commerce tech has been optimized for quantity over quality. Backend infrastructures are built to list products and product specs. They’re not built to answer questions or solve problems.

Confession #3: I go to offline shops for advice — and don’t always purchase there.

I know: shame, shame, shame. 🔔 In my defense, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

In fact, research shows that the main reason people still go to offline stores is for the “sales associates with deep knowledge of the product range”. The same report shows the usage of the in-store shopping channel hovering steady at the same level over the past years.

PwC made this chart scale-less and i don’t know why — check the report for more

With all the benefits of cheap pricing, home delivery, and time savings, people still prefer to make the trek to the store when they need some advice.

Confession #4: I’m not an expert in the field.

Where’s the problem? Are we not talking about an industry that is growing enormously year on year? Yes, we are. And what’s a little research effort on the part of users? Should webshops really be trying to emulate offline shop assistance? Does that even fit the e-commerce business model? Probably not.

But as an outside observer (and user), my gut feeling is this:

  • The current supply-based business model, combined with the current product-based tech, is not sustainable in the long run.
  • To fulfill more complicated user needs and reach more diverse user segments (i.e. non-digitally literate audiences — which a cynic might suggest will soon die off, but they forget that digital literacy isn’t concerned merely with age), the market must move from being supply-focused to being demand-focused. Soon, this will be the only way to grow.
  • There’s an opportunity here to leverage the expertise of shop owners and product experts in the digital journey. Rather than ultimately pushing all of these shops out of business, why not consider models that would enable the best of both worlds for consumers?

Confession #5: I’m working on something better.

Yes, this one is a little meta. I confess! Rather than simply bemoaning the current state of e-commerce, our team figured we might as well have a stab at something new. So we’re asking ourselves:

What if e-commerce as such didn’t exist today, and we could start with a blank page? What would an online shopping journey ideally look like? And can it be built with the technology that is available today?

The concept we’re working on is called Venti. It’s our vision for what online shopping might look like in the 2020s. In it, the user and their context are always front and center. And the user gets help when they need help. Sounds simple, but as we’ve seen: this is nothing like the reality of online shopping today.

For now, Venti is a theoretical exercise and a fun internal project to play around with. But the more we work on it and the more we test it, the more we’re seeing that there might be something here. After all: aren’t most industries ripe for disruption after about 25 years? 😇

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