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What Does Paco Say About Internet Retailing?May/June 2009
by Tina Manzer
In 1999, Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy, The Science of Shopping, was published. If you’re a retailer who hasn’t yet pored over its chapters intriguingly titled, “Shop Like A Man,” “How to Read a Sign” and “Cash/Wrap Blues,” pick up a copy of the updated and revised edition produced this year. It includes our favorite retail guru’s perspective on e-commerce, the global consumer “and beyond.”
Underhill’s original edition did not give e-commerce high marks. He is a bricks-and-mortar retail guy who thought that the Internet was clumsy and annoying, and that it was “designed by a bunch of Silicone Valley geeks for a bunch of fellow Silicon Valley geeks.”
In the years that followed, which included the bursting of the dot-com bubble followed by an explosively growing “new” World Wide Web, was he proven wrong? He says simply, in the new book, no. “Internet shopping has grown in places not because it’s all that good, but because the things it’s replacing or trying to improve upon have gotten that much lousier, clunkier, more expensive and/or inefficient. The online world can chalk up whatever success it has today mostly to the failure of offline avenues and mediums and processes and delivery systems.
“In 2008, a decade after I wrote that first Internet chapter, I still think the Internet and the world of shopping online has a long way to go,” he wrote.
So, Paco – what do you think is wrong?
A lack of filters
He writes: “The uncensored nature of the Web has created a world where anyone can cheerfully disseminate the Protocols of Zion or share detailed instructions about how to build a homemade bomb without a grown-up stepping in and saying, ‘Hey there, wait a minute …’”
Difficulty in sifting through all the info for the truth
“The Internet, after all, is a repository for rumors, half-rumors, quarter-rumors, errors, speculations, hypotheses and racy untruths,” Underhill points out. “These coexist along with, well, facts (things that derive from what at least appear to be valid sources).”
The need for an “ask an expert” service
Someone is needed to condense the 2,000 websites (a conservative estimate) that come up during a search into two dozen that will help shoppers the most. “Certain websites such as Head Butler are on top of this already. Its proprietor simply handpicks stuff he likes, from Shure E3c Sound Isolating Earphones to the new Levon Helm album; writes a short, witty essay on why these things are so great; then directs interested consumers to Amazon,” Underhill writes.
Does it have enough economic support?
“What are its basic economic underpinnings?” he asks. “Does advertising keep it going? Does the government? Do local institutions? The jury’s still out.”
Underhill does concede that, certainly, the second iteration of the Internet – which appeared after the first version tanked in 2001 – is working better. Here’s why.
Women began devoting serious time to the Internet
As he notes in the chapter, “What Women Want,” “…shopping is still and always will be meant mostly for females. Shopping is female. When men shop, they are engaging in what is inherently a female activity. (When a man shops, he’s practically in drag.)”
The Web is more convenient, and saves time and aggravation
It reflects the same products that are offered in bricks and mortar stores, but shoppers don’t have to find a parking space, fight crowds, wander and search a store’s aisles and then wait in line. With the Web, shoppers just click to fill their carts.
It easily creates opportunities for secondary markets.
Selling an item used on the Web has become a comfortable, reliable system for recycling possessions that would otherwise accumulate in everyone’s attics. “Whether it’s a previously owned Mercedes or a slightly scratched Les Paul tobacco-sunburst Gibson guitar that you place on eBay, the Internet has institutionalized a virtual flea market of sorts,” writes Underhill.
When they shop on the Internet, consumers can’t stroke that cashmere sweater, try on lipstick or sample guacamole. In that respect e-commerce will never measure up to Underhill’s high standards for traditional retail success. But while the Internet still “has a long way to go,” it will be better, he said, when one thing occurs: convergence. It means a better linkup among the physical world, the online world and mobile technology.
Underhill explains that taking convergence to a retail level could mean an overhaul of the bricks-and-mortar model, along with its distribution systems and supply chain management. “The era of the big-box merchant, at least in the first world, has reached its apogee. Stores may be getting bigger, but that doesn’t mean consumers plan on spending a correspondingly increased amount of time, or money, in them. Scaling down stores makes both economic and ecological sense. If we start ordering our staples online – and even if we only swing by and pick them up at the store – do we really need that laundry aisle?”