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Online gives me a lot more opportunity to research what I want and find the right version of it - rather than being limited to the selection at my local store. And that's quite a bit because, for my habits, I completely disagree with McLaughlin's assignment of his categories to online vs. traditional. The things I need most are food and household items, cleaning supplies and such. For commodities like that, I always run to local stores. It's the more unusual discretionary items I go online for - electronics, books, movies, music... For those (things such as electronics much more than media), online provides a much better landscape for finding exactly what you need. (Note that I don't shop primarily for price or value; I shop for my needs, the features of the product, and the service of the retailer.)

On the second quoted paragraph, I don't see this as anything new. To me it seems like what he's proposing is more a return to small-scale, boutique shopping, and away from the big-box trend. He's talking about mom-and-pop vs. impersonal chains. I'm not quite sure he sees that, though. Nor am I sure I agree with him. Walmart, for as much as I dislike them, are going gangbusters, because it seems people do like bargain shopping, while the kind of personalized experience McLaughlin is describing adds up to a much more expensive purchase. That kind of attention costs the retailer money, and that cost has nowhere else to go except into the cost of the products sold.

drunken monkey

I am so behind the times with e-commerce. Canada just doesn't have the options available; we haven't jumped on board the same way Americans have. A lot of American companies don't ship here yet (including Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic), or do but only for a very large fee. A lot of the time, it's still easier for me to shop at a physical store.

When I do purchase something online, it's usually entertainment -- books, music, games. (I buy most of my hardcover books online because the prices are so much better, but for softcovers I usually suck up the few bucks extra I'll spend and go to the local chain around the corner.) I buy some clothing online, when I can find things I like. I usually only do that if it's a brand I already know, however, because then I don't have to wonder about sizing. And as I undertake Apartment Redecoration 2007, I think I'll buy some decorative items online. I found a table at CB2 that I love and I'm a little afraid to find out what the shipping costs are.

I can't really see myself buying food online; I like to pick out my own produce, and I wouldn't want to pay a delivery charge for something that is a three-minute walk from my apartment. Same for toiletries; I walk by two drugstores on my way home. It's really not that inconvenient for me to go get what I need myself.

My mother shops online a lot, incidently; she lives in a rural area, so when she wants specific items like a particular DVD, she has a better chance of finding it at an e-store than she does of finding it at Wal-Mart. I live in downtown Toronto; there are lots of places that I can shop. (If she emails me to tell me to buy her something, and then I mail it to her, does that count as her shopping online? Heh.)

The other day I got a catalog for L.L. Bean and was impressed by their strategy -- they'll ship to Canada in December, for free, either from the catalog or their site. Now, that might make me willing to pay the exchange rate, especially now that I've seen the flannel sheets and the awesome snowshoes that my 10-year-old brother would love.


DM, you should also check out the Bean's daily holiday countdown. Doing everything I can to ease the pinch!


Roger, I cannot tell you how many times I have been on the phone with a retail exec or a retail analyst and they've told me, "It's the EXPERIENCE people pay for along with the goods." I think you're right that there's definitely a tiered shopping experience in the offing. The Shopportunity book I read last week points out that people who do go to big-box stores like WMT are also paying for the experience -- by fighting through the parking lot, ducking around the clots of screaming kids and arguing parents, by scrabbling for something on the chaotic shelves ... you get the feeling that you've earned that discounted doodad. I thought that was an interesting point: that we've inextricably coupled "bargain" with "ordeal."

I am skeptical that WMT and TGT will eventually move totally online. For one thing, the average WMT customer is not big on e-commerce. I've got studies that back this up -- some analysts' firm ran the numbers, and the hard-core WMT shoppers do not shop online. For another thing -- and this is purely anecdotal -- WMT and TGT are social experiences. There have been accounts of college kids in total cow towns whiling away Friday nights playing "Wal-Mart tag" and if I swear to God, it's impossible to read a typical mommyblog without the writer mentioning her compulsive Target habits. People go to the stores to while away time, to hunt for items above and beyond the commodities, and to simply drink in the experience about being amid all this STUFF ... stuff that they can afford.

However, I do think retailers who rely on discretionary shoppers -- your Bath & Body Works, your bookstores -- have been put On Notice. If people are going to spend effort (leaving the house, scheduling shopping time, etc.) along with their money, they demand an experience for it.


I think e-commerce will have the greatest effect on luxury goods, simply because of the increased ability to research and compare prices. Clearly, Internet shopping works best when the goods are fungible-- an iPod is an iPod, no matter where you buy it, but those designer jeans need to be tried on first. I agree with Roger on the boutique vs. bargain shopping issue; I think that for most shoppers today, the almighty discount will beat personal service any day.

My sense is that the sort of online shopping people do varies by geography. When I lived in a smaller town in the middle of nowhere, I looked to the Internet to provide what wasn't readily available around me. Sure, my local bookstore could special order obscure titles for me, but it was inconvenient and, I suspect, not cost-effective for the bookstore. Amazon.com just cut out the middleman. Now that I'm in Manhattan, I have access to a million little niche shops serving up an almost infinite variety of goods... but without a car, it can be absurdly difficult to buy a week's worth of groceries. Also, online retailers don't have the expense of maintaining shelf space in the city, so they can offer a greater selection at lower prices, offsetting any shipping charges I incur. My online shopping has shifted from Amazon to Freshdirect and Drugstore.com-- McLaughlin's warehouse goods.

I think free shipping is the Internet's answer to the pack of gum in the checkout line. So many retailers have opted for the "spend $50 to get free shipping" model, and I think it's brilliant. It seems wasteful to place the smaller order and pay shipping, so shoppers hunt around for something else to meet the minimum.


I recently bought a headboard for my bed from Target.com, and the free shipping was a major reason why I bought it (at all, not just from them). The selection of headboards I've seen in stores is pretty limited (and like all furniture, they can be ridiculously expensive). While the selections and prices were better on-line, since headboards are big, the shipping costs basically doubled the price. Since it's not like I'm going to die if my bed has no headboard, I probably would have just done without had I not found a nice-looking, relatively cheap one with free shipping on Target.com.

I can see the same logic working with a flat-screen TV--it's not like you actually need one, and it's a lot of money, so if someone can bring the price down a little bit more...well, you might go for it. Plus if they ship, you don't have to wrestle a bulky yet delicate item home from the store, so that makes it easier too.

I agree with Roger, though, that if I'm just looking for toothpaste and laundry soap, I'm going to run out to Target, I'm not going to hit Target.com. But if you look at the furniture selection at Target.com, it is much, much bigger than what you will see at the store (the vast majority of the pieces are only available online), so I think that they're aiming for a slightly different buyer with the Web site than with the store. Both outlets can still pursue the cheap-yet-fashionable brand identity, but Target the store can focus more on the everyday needs, while Target.com can focus more on the bigger ticket and bulkier items that wouldn't fit in the store and that people don't necessarily want to have to haul home.

Basically I still think of on-line shopping as appropriate for special needs--weird brands I like that are hard to find, or situations where comparison shopping is important--but I shop on-line for lots of different categories of things. When I lived in NYC, I even bought groceries online from FreshDirect--the special-needs angle was that the fish sold in my neighborhood made me violently ill, and FD fish was advertised as going from a refrigerated warehouse to a refrigerated truck to your door. (And indeed, their fish never once made me sick.)

However, I do think retailers who rely on discretionary shoppers -- your Bath & Body Works, your bookstores -- have been put On Notice. If people are going to spend effort (leaving the house, scheduling shopping time, etc.) along with their money, they demand an experience for it.
That's a good point, Lisa. The added expense for the experience isn't as unseemly with the discretionary purchases. The Walmarts and Targets and others, on the other hand, seem to me to fall more into McLaughlin's "need" and "perceived need" categories. So, in effect, we're talking about two different audiences here. Or at least the same audience with different goals at different times.

But that points to the idea - that everyone else seems to be supporting as well - that his assertion that "needs" are going online is patently false. Particularly since, if shipping is not free (the very hook that Emily and Polly mentioned), it blows the whole bargain objective. Even if you consider only non-food items, shipping in many cases just isn't reliable enough to use it for need items. When I get free shipping, it usually means the item will arrive "sometime in the next couple of weeks." That's fine for a new headboard, but when I'm almost out of toothpaste and waiting for more, that's not so hot.

So, boutique shopping and the associated markup is all well and good if you want to do local discretionary shopping, but it seems to me like online is ALSO used primarily for discretionary items, and needs are usually purchased locally.


There have been accounts of college kids in total cow towns whiling away Friday nights playing "Wal-Mart tag" and if I swear to God, it's impossible to read a typical mommyblog without the writer mentioning her compulsive Target habits.

Ha! In high school in my semi-cow-hometown my friends and I always ended up at K-Mart late at night. Always. It's probably why I have fifteen shades of blue nail polish.

What's the cyber-equivalent of an endcap or the stuff you wind up grabbing while in the checkout line?

I think Emily's right that the cyber-equivalent of that is padding your order so you get free shipping. But I've also fallen for the, "Customers who bought X also bought Y!", saying, "Oooh, I didn't know Y had a new album out." Clothing retailers don't do this as well as Amazon does.


Roger, I think we have very different approaches to shopping. I love shopping online for everyday items precisely because I don't care when they arrive. It's very easy for me to sit down at the beginning of the month and place an order for the things I think I'll run out of in the next couple of weeks. Toothpaste is very predictable, after all. Now instead of making up a grocery list the night before, I just place an order for delivery. I have more trouble waiting for that new book or video game to arrive-- the problem of delayed gratification.

Last Wednesday, drugstore.com had a 20% off sale, and traffic was so heavy that the site was down for most of the day. Clearly, most people aren't shopping for necessities online. But viewed as a percentage change over the last few years, I wonder if McLaughlin isn't right. This could be the start of a new trend, particularly if online retailers can keep prices competitive.

I'm also interested in e-commerce's effect on the trucking and shipping industry. There's an economic and environmental cost associated with all this shuffling around of goods, and I wonder how it compares in efficiency with the big-box stores getting shipments in from their national suppliers. Will the next big "buy local" movement focus on toilet paper?

drunken monkey

Bookstores are one area where the experience now matters quite a bit for me. I can go online and spend an hour looking at the books, by clicking on categories or checking out recommended titles. But I can't flip through them there; I like the experience of sitting down with a few possible purchases and taking some time to scan the table of contents, read a few pages, see if it catches my eye. I was really irritated that Chapters and Indigo stores got rid of all the comfy chairs they had scattered around. I suspect their motivation was to stop people from sitting there and reading the magazines instead of buying them, but they also cut down on the browsing, I think. I am more likely to buy more if I have a chance to check out the goods first. (I'm not sure if that's typical or unusual.)


I don't have a car, so if it's big and/or heavy and/or awkward to carry, that sucker gets bought online and delivered.


Mindy and Emily, you raise very good points about different circumstances defining "normal" shopping experiences for different people.

I wonder, if in addition to the three types of shopping-related errands McLaughlin identified (warehouse, amenity, discretionary), we should be looking at consumer patterns based on where people live -- urban, inner-burbs, the 'burbs, exurban areas or rural areas.

Just based on my own shopping patterns: when I lived in SF, I rarely went grocery shopping; SF grocery stores had rotten produce selection, the staples were overpriced, and even if I felt like stocking up, finding parking and hauling all that stuff up the hill to my flat would have been too much like work. It was simply easier to hit farmer's stands and locally-owned corner grocers for stuff, and suck it up for the $3 six-pack of Diet Coke. Plus, I shared a kitchen with three other people, so it's not like I had room for a lot of food anyway.

Now, I'm in a fairly densely-populated small city roughly 11 miles from San Francisco; the supermarkets are still so-so, so we hit local marketplaces and farmer's markets for most of our stuff, and gird our loins for a Safeway run when we have to. We have a small house, so even though we're big into cooking at home, we're still not up to our elbows in stored food.

My in-laws live in Danville, which is definitely the 'burbs, and their supermarkets are like freakin' temples to Calorie, the goddess of overeating. There's just SO! MUCH! STUFF! It is mind-blowing to think about how these abundant, high-quality, CHEAP goods are just 30 miles away from my old San Francisco neighborhood. And my mother-in-law has a walk-in pantry.

And then there's my mom out in Stafford. Things are changing pretty rapidly where she is, but for years, there were but two grocery stores within a half-hour radius, and they were also mind-bogglingly well-stocked with staples. But the one year we tried to find watercress ... ha. My mom also has serious food storage space, and when we go home, I like to open her pantry doors and just marvel at the sheer quantity and variety of stuff she has on hand. (I was once snowed in at her place for four days and we didn't run short of anything.)

My point (really! I do have one!) is that I would suspect the definitions of "warehouse," "amenity" and "discretionary" goods should be examined in the context of frequency (how often do you stock up?), living conditions (do you have the room to stock up?) and transportation factors (could you even get the stock home?). The really cool thing about e-commerce is that right now, you can find a vendor online who's poised to meet your combination of needs.


Excellent point, Emily. Lisa, geography may be part of it, but that's not the whole picture. It also has to do with income levels, social situation, upbringing, and even personal preferences and more. For lack of a better term, let's just lump it all into "demographics," with the end effect being that different people have different shopping habits. Without being sexist about it - since the real breakdown is much more complicated than mere gender - I do "guy shopping." I hate to shop, so I run in, get what I need, and leave. That's why online works so well for my discretionary shopping - I already know what I want. That doesn't work so well for others like Emily.

And so I still take issue with McLaughlin's conclusions. The "trends" he's discussing apply to some (Emily), but not to others (me). So, his generalization doesn't work.


We have an on-line grocery delivery service here in the Toronto area that I am weirdly fascinated by, but haven't used it yet. The time is probably coming though - we have two small children and only one car, so when I go back to work the idea of delivered groceries will be very appealing. I'm even thinking of signing up for one of those local/organic produce delivered to your door every week (or two) deals, which is not quite e-commerce, but it's not going shopping either.

Until now, most of our on-line shopping has been books, DVDs and CDs. But my Christmas shopping this year has been very eco-flavored so I'm ordering on-line from environmental organizations and stores to get stuff I just couldn't find at the mall, and skipping all that driving around which would contribute to global warming anyway. For me, on-line shopping is about 1) finding out what's available 2) comparing and asking questions (is it fair trade? is it organic? how much energy did it take to produce?) 3) doing it all in my pajamas.

Laurel Krahn

I do almost all of my shopping, banking, bill paying online. Stuff that years ago I never would've dreamed of ordering online, I now order (like cat food and cat litter-- yes, really).

I have groceries delivered (SimonDelivers.com) and sometimes other mundane things from them as well (toothpaste, mouthwash, etc). It costs a little more but it's so worth it to not have to be at the store plus I make less impulse purchases. (I do still tend to get produce at stores or farmer's markets when the weather is nice). I order pet supplies from DrsFosterandSmith. I buy most DVD, music, and books from amazon.com save for Science Fiction and Fantasy stuff-- for that, I'll visit our local independent SF bookstores (especially now that I live close to one of them). I occasionally will browse used books and CDs in person at stores but more and more I find myself shopping for that sort of thing on eBay or amazon. I have prescriptions delivered from Walgreens by mail. DVD rentals from Netflix. Shoes from Zappos, clothing from various places, etc. I'll also make purchases of total luxury items like stuff from Lush or BPAL or whatever.

It's rather nice in the winter time in Minnesota to not have to leave the house for stuff. Of course as a Minnesotan it's also in my blood to visit Target regularly, though I don't do it like I used to in part because I know that's the one place where I will linger and make lots of impulse buys. Now it's more of a special occasion when I let myself visit a Target for an hour or two once every month or two and I'm not looking for necessities but at the fun little things.

When I lived in small towns, mail order was a godsend, but visits to Walmart and K-Mart and Shopko were also required. And they didn't have decent grocery delivery. I liked the Super Walmart 'cuz I could get both groceries and other stuff.

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