online vs offline shopping saga/ case study/ story

hi all, a brief interlude/ meditation on shopping and the online/ cyber angle.

“ecommerce” was known to be a potentially revolutionary possibility around the dotcom era and we are now in the full swing of it, but ofc shopping nirvana has not arrived. there is some dark side to the cyber cornucopia. how many people can attest to this with compromised credit cards? and how about the joy of trying to track dozens of different online user ids/ passwords? it looks like cybersecurity is worse than ever and that elegant solutions are not in sight. and browsers storing passwords/ addresses/ credit cards do not seem like any solution. and who cringes at diverse sites storing their credit cards? heres a hopefully illuminating case study(s) that recently went thru myself.

needed to buy a “swamp cooler cover” for my own. years ago, bought one that didnt fit quite right from Home Depo. they apparently are only stocked once a year in a very brief time window around september, and disappear off the shelves nearly instantaneously (clerk told me they last only a few days!). in this way they seem to be as transitory and delicate as summer butterflies, or as in-demand/ seasonal/ fleeting as concert tickets. there are different sizes, and my 42x43in one was hard to obtain.

so this year decided to finally buy the right size. last nite did online searches of Home Depot. but oops, that turns out to be a not-easy problem. all the different sizes of the same cooler cover/ even same brand are listed as different products and none of them are linked, despite being essentially the identical product. theyre all under a category with dozens of products that includes a lot of other product types. at least they did do me the favor of putting dimensions in the title that could be browsed.

but then there was no mechanism to “find nearest store with this product”. they were happy to ship it to a nearby store for free within a week. ok, thats impressive, but what about someone with cold hard cash in their hand ready to buy that minute from the nearest store? you know, nearly impulse buying? but mixed with cyber shopping flair/ astuteness/ savvy?

so for Home Depots web interface, it looked like the only way to try to find the product was to constantly switch to nearby stores, one at a time, and check for it in stock after clicking on the search result, and of course the prior search criteria were lost each time the store was switched. wow! terrible interface at least for this use case!

so then tried Lowes, nearest store. ok! a nicer interface. it had an amazing checkbox on the search that allowed to “exclude items not at this store”. fantastic! that worked great. except their covers were polyester instead of strong canvas. rats! #@%& oh yeah and once again the cooler covers of different sizes were listed as different products, unlinked! oh yeah and the dimensions were not in the title, requiring to click thru on every search result to find the right dimension! but after awhile did indeed hit the jackpot! they said there were 30 items of the 42×43 at that very store!

oh, but thru long experience, have learned not to trust that (driving miles to stores that say a product is in stock, and then to leave emptyhanded). called the store. operator: “plz give me item #”. did so. she says “we have 30 of those in stock”. “great! just like the internet! can that be trusted?” (thats a suspiciously high number for a single size, that was not available at home depot…) she said “I dont trust anything unless someone checks it out! let me send someone to the shelf!”

so then a young clerk dude walks there physically and checks the item while on phone. checks the dimensions. (because is the item # different for different dimensions, or the same item #? not sure myself!) he confirms its right and puts it at the customer service desk. drive over and pick it up 30m later. so, billions of dollars of cyber technology reduced to some minimum-wage clerk walking to a shelf to check items while someone waits on the phone. thats defn 21st century stuff eh?

whole effort from start to finish including searching different “vendors”, drive, pickup took 1h! overall, fantastic results! but ofc not utter perfection/ flawelessness.

ofc clothes shopping sites have a good grasp of “same item, different size/ color” but somewhat surprisingly other types of massive multibilliondollar stores dont. here we can readily see how much intelligence is encoded in software/ web sites. theres a lot, but theres still some finishing touches, some readily apparent nuance/ polish that could be added. you know how companies are always talking about the “shopping experience”… and ofc as anyone in business/ retail knows, subtle elements/ nuances can make the difference between a sale and a customer shopping somewhere else.

have shopped some at Walmart and they seem to have a feature where the item can be located at the nearest store that has it in stock. thats a really killer app feature for what might be called “hybrid” shopping. it seems that retailers think of shopping as either “go to store and buy (only) whats in it” or “buy online and ship it ASAP, maybe to store” and dont yet fully see the possibilities of mixing the two.

imagine a new system where people could basically use a search engine like a bidding system. “want this item, need this size/ color (etc), want to pick it up ASAP, want good deal” and stores all compete to fulfill the order based on proximity searching and nearby brands! that could be a very big deal. google is close to pulling it off, but not quite yet. think something like this may eventually materialize some day. the logistics are a bit staggering by current standards when individual stores barely know what they have in stock, but suspect it may become reality in “not too long”.

how much business is in this category of “need it NOW”? it actually seems to fit a lot of industries. and think people would be willing to pay some extra for such ability.

gives new meaning to the word “power user(s)” or “power/ pro shoppers”… as they say maybe those multibilliondollar corps, highly optimized to move product, are yet still leaving some “money on the table”…

anyway werent RFID price tags supposed to be available by now so that stores had nearly perfect knowledge of their inventory? looks like that didnt work out yet. maybe too expensive? probably some stores are doing it, but maybe that technology will never make it to the zillions of neighborhood stores, possibly mainly due to cost?

so online vs physical shopping have been massively/ almost utterly transformed in a ~1½ decade and yet it would seem we still have a ways to go. shopping is an aspect of our life that has been highly realigned/ innovated by cyber technology and yet think there are still more dramatic advancements in store. (just wait until robots are all over warehouses… its already the case with amazon and surely just a matter of time…)

bought 2 other cool items lately, a $40 guitar effects device at guitar city that hopefully can be creatively reused for vocals (crossing my fingers, should know soon… vocal processing devices tend to cost ~$150 minimum otherwise!), and a headphone amplifier for $16.50 at walmart (a nearly similar device cost $25 at guitar city). was a bit shocked to find the halfway unusual item there at such a bargain price! (they are typically used in recording situations/ studios…)

think the headphone amplifier will probably work as a supercheap mini receiver system for an amp-subwoofer combo on a ps4, which unfortunately seems to try to limit the line-out voltage/ headphone volume substantially on their controllers apparently so kids dont hurt their ears. ugh! did FREE store pickup on both items and they arrive within 1week each. impressive!

yeah, there is some small )( joy in fast nearly instant-gratification materialistic acquisition of cool cheap fun devices or utilitarian products. filling up that sometimes empty feeling right? depression/ loneliness is a widespread problem in culture and hence somewhat ironic 21st century buzzwords like “retail therapy”. has anyone heard of that book “affluenza”? nevermind! try not to ruminate/ think too much! there is some correlation between high intelligence and depression, and even lack of friends, but facebook has solved that right? uh, yikes!

cyber is good for some things, but not others… some problems are eternal and cyber exacerbates some, and maybe even creates the illusion that some have decreased when it actually increases them. technology is like that, the eternal double edged sword, and with even more “cutting edge technology” these days that edge is even sharper.

hope we can find/ save/ centralize the humanity in all this eventually/ some day.

one of my favorite songs from recent years by Jessie J: forget about the money-money-money, it aint about the b-b-b-bling, forget about the price tag, we’re payin with love tonite…

“the futures already here, its just not evenly distributed” —Gibson.

addendum: just noticed that guitar center has an advanced “search this stores inventory” (not easy to find!) and “search within [x] miles radius of this zip code.” very impressive! ahead of the pack! 🙂

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