The Thrill Of The Hunt

I don’t know about you, but I am a sufferer of what I call “Record Store Syndrome” (the name alone belies how long I’ve had this malady).

Symptoms usually include an intense desire to go shopping for entertainment items — games, books, CDs, DVDs, and so on — followed by utter and complete memory loss when I arrive at the store. This disease is further complicated by the fact that I also suffer from the related disease of “List-itis” which prevents me from actually writing down the objects of my desire before I go try to get them.

I know. Tough life, right?

But after a recent bout of RSS, I started to think about my shopping habits both on- and off-line. Like many folks, I really dig Amazon.com, and I often spend hours cruising CDnow. I buy lots of books and CDs online but have never purchased a single article of clothing, morsel of food, or furniture.

Of course, I don’t buy a lot of that stuff in my analog life (except food). But it really started to bother me, why I and so many others are so eager to buy books, music, and software online but hesitate when the issues of clothing, groceries, and furnishings come up.

Why is Amazon doing so well? Why aren’t more people shopping online? Even with record numbers this holiday season, the latest figures that I’ve seen show that less than one third of the total Internet population bought stuff.

I’ve written here before on my theory that security concerns are holding back many folks. And I still believe that. But after I wrote that security column, I also received plenty of mail from folks pointing out to me that the reasons they don’t shop have more to do with the user experience than security. It made sense. But it rattled around in my subconscious for a while before my recent fit of RSS began to slide the pieces into place for me.

Think about when you shop. Your decision to buy some goods — books, CDs, videos, DVDs, software — is usually dependent on some previous knowledge about that item.

You’ve heard a song from the disc, you’ve played the demo, you’ve read a review — some experience or knowledge has driven you to purchase a particular item. More likely than not, you purchase a particular CD because you like the band. You might buy a book because you’ve heard about it, like the author, or are swayed by a friend or a review.

For all these items, the information packed into the product is too much to experience in the store. You might be able to sample it. But for the most part, you need outside input to make an informed decision. Hopefully, unlike me, when you go to buy something, you already know what you want in some way.

Now think about clothing. While the brand or designer definitely has some bearing on your decision to buy, you probably aren’t going to purchase something you haven’t tried on. This doesn’t rule out catalogs, either — once you’ve bought something from a catalog and like how it looks on you, you’re probably more likely to purchase other things from the catalog.

All in all, though, when you go shopping for clothes, you probably don’t know what you want — you need to experience the clothes on you, browse through the racks, fondle, gaze, imagine yourself wearing them before you decide. Models and beautiful layouts in catalogs help you do this in print.

Finally, imagine yourself buying commodity items like gasoline, eggs, or milk. Unless you’re seriously weird, you probably don’t sit around the house on Sunday morning reading the gasoline reviews in the local paper or hopping on the Net to question fellow egg aficionados on their input in the white vs. brown shell debate.

Besides a cursory glance for cracks in the store or a check on the expiration date, your commodity purchases probably rely on price and overall supplier trust when making your (hopefully brief) purchasing decisions.

What’s selling well on the Net right now? You got it — things in the first category: books, CDs, and software. Things in the second category (clothing and furniture) aren’t doing as well. And products in the third category well, anyone who’s studied the online grocery industry knows the answer to that.

Plenty has been written about items in the first category of “consumable information” and why they’re selling so well on the Net. Basically, it’s because they lend themselves well to an environment where you sort of know what you’re shopping for before you shop, but are actively seeking advice to expand your horizons.

The commodity category has its own issues. It’s the second category that really interests me because that is where so much of the retail industry lies.

While price, value, and brand are important, shopping is really about the experience. That was confirmed in my mind anecdotally by my own recent field research. (Okay okay I was really just Christmas shopping. But if I refer to it as “field research” here, I’m hoping I can write off my parking and gas.)

Shoppers aren’t running into stores, approaching a clerk, and asking for a particular item (besides Furbys). No they actually walk in, browse a little, touch, feel, try on, hold it up to the light they’re desperately in search of that “ah-ha!” moment that comes when you’ve found the perfect thing. Above all, they’re searching for surprise.

And that element of surprise is what’s so lacking in most e-commerce sites today. It’s what’s lacking, fundamentally, from most online shopping experiences. You’re asked to come in, know what you want, enter it into a search box, click on it, add it to a shopping cart, cough up your credit card number, and move along. Not very satisfying.

One of the secrets of Amazon is that they incorporate surprise into the experience. While you might enter Amazon looking for one thing, recommendations from others and related links quickly draw you into a mode of pleasurable browsing, discovery, and surprise.

CDnow provides a similar experience through Real Audio listening and related recommendations. And eBay heck, every minute you’re there is a new adventure, an opportunity for surprise, and a never-ending feeling that there’s an incredible bargain just around the next menu .

Shopping means more than just getting stuff — it means a whole experience of sorting possibilities, seeking the “ah-ha” moment, and closing in for the best deal.

Perhaps a vestigial remnant from our days as roaming nomads, shopping is the modern equivalent of The Hunt. Analog retailers know it. Precious few online retailers know it. But if e-commerce is really going to take off, we’d better start figuring out how to incorporate surprise into our sites.

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