It’s no secret I’m a fan of online shopping. I enjoy the privilege of actually holding, testing and seeing the products I’m purchasing, and I can’t get that online. But what’s normally lacking in a traditional store is the wealth of knowledge from experienced buyers. In other words, I live for reviews.
I’m not an impulsive buyer. I read dozens of reviews on Amazon before trying something (and I always start with the most negative review rated most helpful).
Here are the circumstances when I have to read reviews. If…
- I haven’t used a product before
- the item hasn’t come highly recommended from a friend or respectable acquaintance (i.e. Twitter)
- it is fairly expensive purchase ($50+)
- there is a cornucopia of options (e.g. iPad Bluetooth keyboards)
- I haven’t heard of it from another source before (in the case of books or movies)
- I’m in a new city looking for local food
Here are the two situations when I don’t read reviews:
- I want it right that second (e.g. food, candy bars)
- It is a cheap consumer staple (e.g. toilet paper; but now that I think about it, I’m going to check into some reviews)
So the short list of non-review situations is pretty pathetic. I’m a review-o-holic. I normally share the love in return via Twitter or this blog, because I’m an evangelist in every sense of the word for things worth talking about. All of this to say, I know it’s an issue.
How this all came about
As I meandered through the mall the other day with my wife and eventually walked away with nothing (though my interest was piqued a few times), I couldn’t help but think “I’m sure there are flaws with this product that I haven’t thought about,” or “I bet I can find it online cheaper.”
I have whatever the official phobia of buying things that haven’t been properly evaluated via community experience is. I have pre-purchaser’s remorse if I even think about buying something without knowing how others have weighed in.
The Internet (mostly in the way of Amazon reviews) has ruined me.
Why does this matter?
We’re heading toward a world devoid of actual face-to-face human interaction to buy a product. That’s crazy and amazing.
It’s great because it provides all kinds of opportunities for people to build boutique businesses that can connect with people around the world instead of just people in their backyard. Ask sellers on Etsy what they think of this revolution.
It’s also scary. Go ask independent book store owners (if you can find any) what they think about Amazon. You’ll probably get an R-rated response.
Here’s why I’m rooting for the Internet and small business, simultaneously (and how I hope to overcome my fear of buying things offline again).
Why this is scary
1. Without small businesses, communities will experience less togetherness.
I want to know the guy at the bike shop. And my hardware store manager. There’s something awesome about having a “whatever” guy or gal.
I love being able to say, “Oh yeah, I have a car guy. He’ll hook you up,” or “Yeah, I have a printing lady. She’ll get you squared up.” It’s good for everyone, because problems get solved quickly, the community gets cash, and everybody walks away happy.
2. Small businesses will shut down because they can’t compete on price or convenience.
This is especially true if Amazon really does pull off same-day shipping. Small businesses are the backbone of the world. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees make up 99.7% of employers in the United States. That’s mind-boggling.
Our economy and our communities need small business.
3. We could be heading toward a dangerous monopoly
We don’t want Amazon to be the only place to buy books (or anything). It’s obviously dangerous when one company or person has all the power. They can flip a switch and double their prices, and once everyone else has been driven out of business, we won’t have any other options.
How do we fix this?
I think there are three main ways to fix this, and they all need to be combined for it to really work.
People who know things as well as hundreds of other reviewers combined. Experts who tailor things to you in such a way that the premium price is worth paying. People who will shoot straight with you about the flaws and faults of products and even tell you who the competitors are and in what circumstances those competitors are better.
I’m growing more convinced of the value of super-specialization. The more experts we have in our communities, the more opportunities there are for that person to actually make it in business and the more we benefit from not having to spend hours reading through REVIEWS IN CAPS LOCK and one-star ratings because the package didn’t arrive on time instead of people actually reviewing the product.
Even the most thorough reviews on the Internet can be faked. There’s high visibility but low responsibility on the Internet, and in-person communities combine high visibility with high responsibility, a better cocktail.
If I don’t know the reviewer or alleged expert, or if they have some benefit (e.g. affiliate links) to you purchasing, while simultaneously receiving the security of you not knowing where they live so you can TP their house when the product they recommended falls apart during the first week, that’s a dangerous combination.
This applies in everyone’s line of work now and it’s inextricably linked to being an expert. Transparency is the key to business, life, and ministry. Without full honesty, everything falls apart. You can’t be trusted.
For example, in my work, I have to be honest about areas of the Christian faith that aren’t completely clear. I have to explain why I’ve had my doubts before and reasons why others choose not to believe. There’s no benefit in hiding facts that anyone with an Internet connection can find in ten seconds.
We’re living in a world where information is accessible to everyone, and I want to be the one giving the information out if I have it, even if it may undermine my position. It builds trust, and it gives me an opportunity to answer objections that I have willingly handed over.
If I can trust the guy down the at the bike shop to give me the absolute best advice he can, even if it means telling me to go somewhere else, I’m going to recommend everyone I know to go talk with him when they are in the market for a two wheeler.
With increased transparency, we’ll have local people with the ability to sell all over the world because of glowing community recommendations, making businesses global and local. People dedicated to their craft and their passions get to spread their knowledge and insight, humans become more connected and transparency permeates all we do.
There’s no way for Joe’s Book Store to hold the inventory Amazon does. So instead, Joe has to make tough calls and select the best books, display them in an interesting way, have his staff handwrite recommendations (which is already popular and endearing in bookstores) and create an environment that the Internet can’t touch.
Curate a space that’s a joy to shop in. Let customers feel and touch and taste whatever you’re selling. Display things in a way that 2D screens can’t hang with.
Have workshops and demonstrations and curate unique personal experiences. The way to survive isn’t to cut in an effort to lower prices, it’s to curate experiences, the best products and recommendations that blow the facelessness of Amazon out of the water. We can all learn something from delighting our customers in a way the Internet can’t. Human interaction beats faceless words on a screen every time.
Tim Challies posted about remembering Christian bookstores that articulates my feelings as well.
There are few experiences I enjoy more than wandering through the aisles, browsing the shelves, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, looking for the surprises, looking for the perfect book, talking to the owner and asking for recommendations. It transports me to days gone by. I believe, I hope, there will always be a place for such stores. I hope they will find a way to adapt, survive and to thrive, even while selling good material. Their disappearance will be our loss.
Local shops, not just bookstores, must adapt to thrive with less stock than the Amazons of the world. It’s not impossible, but it’s a very different road they have to learn to walk down.