Why we shop online

Shopping online. Photo by elenathewise/DepositPhotos

BitDepth#1160 for August 30, 2018

The most common misunderstanding about shopping online is the perception that things are cheaper for local shoppers.

After you’ve done comparison shopping, been hit by an exchange rate that’s only controlled locally (Amazon calculates the value of US to TT at more than seven to one), paid sometimes arbitrary duties and taxes along with Mr Imbert’s seven-percent penalty for not going downtown, costs are often close enough that it isn’t worth the effort.

The very first thing I bought online wasn’t even something I wanted. It was a book my mother asked me to get from Amazon, which was just a bookstore back then.

That book came through the post, but the experience was interesting enough that I began to explore the early world of freight-forwarders, now almost ubiquitously called ‘skyboxes’ because they act as postbox addresses, serviced by cargo planes, for people who live elsewhere.

I continued to shop online, not because of some perverse disinterest in entering local malls, but because they didn’t have much what I needed to do my work.

Local businesses aren’t to blame for not supplying the goods I wanted to use. In careers in writing, then photography and finally computing, which brought it all together on a single screen, there was simply no way that an entrepreneur could make a profit bringing the goods I wanted into this country.

Before there was Amazon and skyboxes, there were flights to the US, sometimes to Miami, most often to New York, where I’d hit camera stores for professional equipment and raw materials that weren’t available locally.

Big boxes of gear would be loaded as excess cargo on passenger flights, usually during the off-season and then I’d face long customs queues with a list of goods and invoices that had to be paid for, in cash, on the spot.

There is no aspect of any element of that experience that I recall now with any fondness whatsoever.

Customs charges today might sometimes be arbitrary, but most officers can and will check prices using the same Internet that was used to source them in the first place.

Thirty years ago, everything was done by sentiment and vague feelings about the worth of goods, regardless of what an official invoice said.

But even with those hassles, it was worth it to get the most appropriate gear, precisely the right film, absolutely the best printing paper, instead of having to settle for the diminished, uninspiring selections that were deemed commercially viable in Trinidad.

It was my first experience with inserting myself into the value chain of business, preempting a local retailer’s decisions about what to supply to the public.

As with most things, the Internet only amplified an existing disruption of the retail business model, making it possible for anyone, from anywhere, to buy exactly what they needed.

We live in a world today in which the words “find it on the net” have replaced “I’m going shopping” as the preferred method of finding many very specific kinds of goods.

This creates significant challenges for local businesses, particularly those dealing in boutique goods. Still available to them are items that are too bulky, too perishable or too fragile for someone to consider undertaking the hassle or risk of importing it for themselves.

And barriers to even those issues are falling, vividly proven by the rise of local consumers who are willing to shop from their living rooms for Japanese used vehicles, bypassing even local foreign-used dealers.

The shopping disruption is hardly limited to this country. In the US, online shopping is increasing at a pace that continues to shutter bricks and mortar companies.

One future for presence shopping is in deeply stocking staples that match local needs and beating online delivery with immediate availability.

There’s a market there for bread and cheese, builder’s nails and car tyres.

Strategic partnerships with other vendors in mall and plazas might evolve them from emporiums of browsing to magnets for specifics.

Service is another distinguishing factor, and it’s one that local retailers struggle to get right.

There are rare businesses I might bypass with the click of a mouse, but I continue to shop there because I like the thinking behind the store, the capabilities of its staff and its commitment to its product or service.

I could, with a significant effort, replicate what they do, but why bother, when they demonstrate a keenness to do it with style and resources of knowledge?

I’ve been looking at a cross-section of next-generation local service providers and artisans who are learning this lesson.

They aren’t bringing bulk products in a container and packaging it off into small boxes at a profit. They are reshaping local products, traditions and styles into something new that appeals locally before it’s tested in global markets.

This is the brutal truth.

If you can shop for it on the Internet with a computer, someone else with a computer can do it too, and will probably do it much better.

If there is any guidepost for the future of business it is this, if anyone can buy anything from anywhere, what are you selling that’s special, emotive and relevant to a potential customer?

If  your business isn’t a strong answer to that question, stick with your day job, at least until it gets taken by robots.