What’s Wrong with Online Shopping

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Online shopping has plenty of pluses going for it: Compared to the in-store experience, the consumer can browse more quickly than strolling down the aisles, and can do so 24 hours a day, without ever having to head to the mall. But the experience is far from perfect, and I’m not talking about the obvious downsides, like that you can’t try something on if you’re only looking at it on a computer screen.

Many of the problems seem to arise because the retail and online divisions of major stores are run by entirely different groups, or at least they were until recently—and these groups sometimes seem more like competitors rather than players working on the same team. The consumer sees the same store brand name, and understandably assumes the entities are identical, but they’re not—and the results are heaps of confusion and frustration. Here, some of the issues that I and others take issue with when it comes to buying stuff on the Internet:

Price Inconsistency. Paco Underhill, the consumer culture scholar behind Why We Buy, discusses all sorts of online shopping frustrations in an interview with the WSJ Digits blog. Among other things, he wonders why in the world retailers would sell a product for one price in the store, and for another price on the web. Do retailers think we’ll never find out? Do they think we’re stupid? Such practices can only lead to consumer frustration, with more than a few consumers taking our business elsewhere. “They have to create seamless links between online and the store,” says Underhill.

Signage Inconsistency. There’s a big banner promotion heralded on a retailer’s website, asking consumers to come down to the store and take advantage. When you get there, you have to ask a salesperson if you’re in the right place—because there are no signs whatsoever to match the promos you saw online. “Oh yeah,” the sales guy says, pointing out what you need to do. It seems like the brick-and-mortar stores prefer in-store shoppers to be ignorant of special deals being promoted online. That way, shoppers who don’t know any better will wind up paying more than they need to. But again, in today’s world, shoppers are going to find out about price favoritism, and they’re going to be upset.

Inventory Inconsistency. I’ve been known to use the web as a pre-shopping tool. I’ll search for an item I need right away, and if it’s being sold at a good price by a store near my home, I’ll take a drive over. But on more than one occasion, I’ve gotten to the store only to be told that the item isn’t sold in physical stores. That sorry, it’s an online-only thing. According to a WSJ story, until recently J.C. Penney web and store divisions operated completely independently of each other, and they emphasized different goods. Some retailers post a little note saying “online-only” on their websites, but it’s easy to overlook such fine print. The poor sales guy will probably try to steer me to buy some “similar” product, but by then I’ll be too angry to spend money in a place with borderline bait-and-switch policies.

Coupons Game. Before buying anything online nowadays, it’s essential to Google or use a coupon code site like RetailMeNot to locate a code that’ll give you free shipping, or a discount of 10% or 20% off. Often the codes do not work for mysterious reasons, but sometimes they do. And so if you skip this step you’re basically leaving money on the table. But why is the step necessary? Why force us to play this game? I understand that these little discounts are a means for retailers to get shoppers excited to buy—and one way to do so is to make them feel special with an “exclusive” or “limited-time” offer. But come on. This is annoying. If there’s a special promotion available and valid, then make it automatically available to all consumers. Don’t make us play games.

Customer Service Inconsistency. Again, from the WSJ post featuring Paco Underhill, a series of experiments sought to test if retail stores would match the prices of its online counterparts and if brick-and-mortar stores would accept returns for items purchased online. Many of the physical stores would do neither. Again, the question every consumer would ask is: So am I dealing with the same store or not?

Delayed Shipping Cost Info. Online retailers always seem to wait until the last minute, right before they ask for the credit card number, to give you a clue about how much your total purchase is going to cost—shipping included. There have to be more upfront ways of doing this. If they did, there wouldn’t be quite so many virtual abandoned shopping carts, filled with items that no one’s going to buy because they cost $75 for shipping.

Creepiness of Being Watched All the Time. There have been a couple of noteworthy NY Times stories recently: one about how retailers are using web coupons to compile data on your shopping habits, and the other on the general concept of “behavioral tracking,” in which cameras monitor every item you pause to look at in a store, and marketers follow your every online search and Facebook update. The idea is to get to know customers better, and to customize the shopping experience by offering special deals or bringing new merchandise to one’s attention. But to me, this is creepy. I don’t want to be e-stalked, especially not by a store trying to get me to spend more money.