Online shopping, reality and speed – what is important in the customer experience?

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E-commerce opportunities have revolutionized modern life. We don’t have to go anywhere or actively search for anything, going from store to store seeking out the one needed, elusive item. And rarities? Forget it. You can find it online with a little bit of attentive searching. The time-consuming hunt, the trying to find something out-of-print or a song with just a lyric like we did in the old days – it’s nothing now. And maybe we lose that sense of accomplishment and the appreciation of having something simply because of the work we had to do to get it. (The same principles were at work in my early refusal to get email – I wanted my paper-and-pen penfriend world to remain the same… rare, personal and full of anticipation.)

And while online shopping has certainly made my life richer (as stupid as that sounds), I recognize that the in-person, “instant gratification” retail shopping experience also is not going away. People want to feel, see, taste, touch, hear everything and experience something tactile, particularly in trying on clothes and the like, but at the same time, online shopping means you’re no longer limited to what you can find in a local shop or the mall or something. And that’s why I love it – I hate shopping in person.

How are some of the biggest e-commerce giants tapping into massive troves of data on shoppers’ habits and preferences to tailor and curate in-store shopping experiences and in turn, at the same time, drive shoppers back to the e-commerce platform?

Amazon.com’s new flagship store experiment is a case study in doing exactly this. When I read the Vox article about this store I was as perplexed as the writer initially had been. Why would the entity that pretty much singlehandedly made e-commerce a thing move back to brick-and-mortar? I never in a million years imagined that I would see this dubious store for myself, and yet the very same day as I read the article, I ended up at University Village in Seattle and went in the store. Nothing impressive, nothing that would make me want to go back. And I don’t need in-person employees to offer to help me, only to tell me, “Well, you can buy that online… on Amazon.” DUH! It seems like a really expensive experience to create that can only benefit a limited number of people, if it really “benefits” anyone at all.

I recently watched Aziz Ansari’s Netflix sitcom Master of None, and he lamented the horror of going online to try to replace a beloved pair of shoes only to find that they were out of stock – so he had to (insert exasperated tone here) actually go out to find and buy them in person. “Who has time for that?”

Precisely.

“Crimes against books” and “compacting human heads”…

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“Mounds of human heads wander into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games, I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining!”

Osip Mandelstam

It has been, rather forgotten by me, more than ten years since I first read Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. I recall finding the book in a 1 dollar pile of discards in a bookstore south of Seattle. Having read I Served the King of England in the summer of 1999, on the tail end of my first visits to the Czech Republic and the eastern and central Europe I had been reading and writing about from afar, it had always been a struggle to find this literature. The Czechs I had met to that point seemed hell-bent on a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder arrogance about their superior intelligence and artistry, possessing a tortured soul and an impossible language for anyone but them to understand. Guarding it closely – almost jealously – as though it would diminish what they had if anyone else could get a glimpse of the brilliance. I imagine this attitude being more a Cold War-era hangover than anything else. But I don’t know. My path, which at that moment in 1999, was still at least partly paved with stones from the Slavic studies academic arena, did not wind in that direction.

“‘How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anybody wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, INQUISITORS BURN BOOKS IN VAIN. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh…‘”

In my recent rereading of Too Loud a Solitude, I discovered an Amazon.com “review” (I won’t really call it that so much as I will call it a collection of notes about things that struck me while reading the book) that I posted in 2003. I had forgotten the review, but there were little bits I had remembered from my previous reading.

For example, quotes, such as “It is from books that I’ve learned the heavens are not humane”. Or better yet, the narrator referring to his tale as a “portrait of the artist as an old mushroom face” (which recently took on even more immediacy when a friend described someone’s morning face as looking like a “used teabag”). Reading the book again, the same imagery jumped out at me – the art and its destruction mixed among garbage. The onslaught of technology, wiping out a way of life or a particular job. Or a theme we discuss at work sometimes – the destruction of beauty. One colleague, who lived for some time in Mexico, marveled at the hard work and skill that Mexican women put into creating the most elaborate piñatas – only to see them destroyed, beaten violently until the candy hidden inside exploded out onto the ground. Perfect analogies for the transitory and temporary nature of beauty. It is only here for a moment. The ‘hero’ of Too Loud a Solitude spent his life operating a wastepaper compactor and extracted the lesson that there is beauty in destruction.

Even current events seem to touch upon the timeliness of the message and imagery – for example, the conscientious (if strange) dumpster divers who go looking for treasures in the garbage because we live in the kind of society when people throw away insane amounts of perfectly good things – food, furniture, appliances. Our throwaway society with its millions of starving people (in the US for example) disposes of and destroys everything. It is no wonder we see people as disposably.