There’s a great hype nowadays among parents about online shopping. I get it, it’s easy and time- and stress-saving. But nothing comes for free, so where’s the catch?
I would like to start my reflection by stressing one simple truth which we tend to overlook. Big businesses don’t care about you. The illusion of service-centred businesses is that they operate for our individual good. They don’t. They are businesses, they aim to make a profit and grow. It’s extremely important that we don’t allow an excellent customer service to fog the fact we are merely trading goods. Modern business masks this ugly truth through building feelings inside us. The impression of belonging to a community, loyalty towards brands, inspirational storytelling (social impact, innovation, “I came to US with 2 dollars in my pocket and a wish to change the world, now I’m a billionaire”, you name it). I know, I sound so communist right now. I’m not exempt from the charm of online shopping, nor emotion-based business tricks. I like to play that game, but I want all players to know the rules. Having said that, let’s dig into the negative effects online shopping can have.
Free returns, fast deliveries, and any customer-centred policy translate into more CO2 emissions. E-commerces have also a financial motivation to reduce fuel consumption and they fund a lot of research on it, but the overall trend is worrying. This short video by University of California gives a complete yet simple overview of the situation:
When you buy at physical shops, the price tag is democratic: everyone pays what’s written on that. This doesn’t necessarily happen with online shopping. It’s no news that airline ticket online shops exploit your cache (sort of your browser history) to squeeze as much money as possible from you. Have you ever noticed that when looking for a second or third time for a plane ticket in a short time, price sometime increases in time? If you’d switch to another browser you’d see the original price still there. It’s all part of their smart scheme. The same thing already happens with online shopping. Online retailers potentially can use any scrap of information they have about you to make you spend as much as possible. Price variations are also used to test how much consumers are willing to pay for certain items. There’s an individual dimension (they want to maximise how much you single user spend) and a collective one (how to maximise spending of aggregated groups of users). Are you willing to may more, without transparency on what more is?
Manipulative online assortment
To be fair, manipulative assortment happens also in physical stores. There’s a whole area of research about how to psychologically condition customers to spend more time in shops and to buy more. Here’s a video by Business Insider which will walk you through the well-known approaches of retailers to maximise sales through assortment:
Now imagine for a moment how powerful online shops can be on this. They literally have the capability to optimise the presentation of items based on you, single user. They literally can build the perfect shop for you. If already now we overbuy, based on collective and approximate models, what will become of us through online shopping?
There’s a mad fever about collecting user data. Physical shops collect some data, but are limited to aggregate levels of information (like total sales per item), and to the limited subgroup of customers with a fidelity card. E-commerce can see everything about you. They can track what you click on, how you move through their website, how long you pause on items, and so on. They may even use your address to derive information about you as a customer: if many users have bought certain items in your area, they’ll recommend it to you. If you live in a well-off block, they’ll try to make you pay more for what you buy. Believe me, possibilities are endless. The entire world has been collecting data or developed ways to collect it about everything for the past 30 years. The only crucial piece online retailers miss is your complete shopping history. Don’t give it to them.
In conclusion, I want you to be aware that online retailers try to buy you with the promise of comfort and stress-free shopping. That’s all true, but it comes with a cost and I want everyone to be aware of it. I indulge in online shopping myself, but I’m careful not to make it my regular and only way to shop. I appreciate the service, but I don’t want to be blinded by it.
I’m very open and curious to read comments on this post. Were you aware of all these risks? Do you still feel online shopping is the best choice for your family? I’m eager to hear from you. Thanks for reading!