Technology Cured My Bad Case of Shopaphobia

With Black Friday fast approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about how various forms of technology have become ingrained into our everyday lives.

You may be wondering exactly what the busiest shopping day of the year has to do with the spread of new technology. That’s a fair question. The answer — at least for me — is everything.

That’s because I absolutely loathe shopping. In fact, I hate it so much that I literally used to dread the holidays.

For someone who doesn’t even like buying things for himself, schlepping through a crowded mall in search of just the right gifts for a host of friends and family was an excruciating experience. That’s precisely what holiday shopping was for me until the Internet spawned a phenomenon known as “e-commerce.”

Suddenly, I was able to shop in my own environment. Instead of fighting for parking spaces and elbowing my way through hostile crowds, I was able to sit a my desk, my kitchen table, or on my couch, and calmly browse the inventory of dozens of stores my way — by pointing and clicking. Accompanied by a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, this almost became a pleasant experience.

Virtual Shopping Assistants

As online shopping technology improved, the experience became even better. Sites started introducing applications that asked about the person I was shopping for at the moment — a sister, an uncle or a friend who likes outdoor activities — and presented gift suggestions based on my answers.

I could have gotten similar help from a salesperson in a real-world store, but in cyberspace there are no other customers vying for the salesperson’s time. Well, there might be, but most online stores have enough backend computing power to handle the rush of holiday traffic, which means they provide prompt, personalized service with no interruptions.

These virtual shopping assistants, which are now common parts of retail websites, took a lot of the pain out of shopping for me.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but when it comes to holiday gift buying, I can honestly say that the ability to shop when and where I choose — without ever having to enter a mall — has transformed me from a Scrooge into something of a Santa Claus. And it appears that I’m not alone, based on current online shopping statistics.

Even with thoughts of a still-sluggish economy dancing in their heads, the average American consumer is expected to spend US$688.87 on gifts this holiday season, according to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation. That’s a slight increase from the $681.83 the average consumer spent during the 2009 season.

Sixty-one percent of the people responding to this survey admitted that the economy would influence how much they spend. Fifty-four percent said they would be seeking out more sales; 40 percent said they planned to use more coupons than they have in years past, and 31 percent said they planned to do comparison shopping online.

Online Comparison Shopping

It’s a safe bet that a fair amount of that comparison shopping will be done on mobile devices, which are starting to come into their own as online shopping tools. More than 25 percent of adults who own a smartphone plan to use it to shop for gifts, compare prices or research products, according to the National Retail Federation’s survey. Not surprisingly, that number climbs to 45 percent among young adults from 18 to 24.

I’m also guessing that a large number of those comparison shoppers ultimately will purchase at least some gifts online once they discover how easy retailers have made it to do so.

Retailers were among the first businesses to understand the value of social media as a marketing tool. They have created Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts that help build buzz around their brands, and they are leveraging those platforms to boost holiday sales.

Amazon.com, the ultimate online retailer, has been running a Countdown to Black Friday promotion on its Facebook page, offering a different deal each day for the entire month of November. Other retailers — including Best Buy and The Home Depot — launched various Black Friday promotions on Facebook this week.

Macy’s posted a Black Friday tab on its Facebook page, offering visitors a preview of more than 200 deals that will be available in its stores the day after Thanksgiving. The page also features a video showing users how to drag and drop any of the items that catch their eye into a personal shopping list that can be stored on the site until those items are available for purchase.

Social Shopping

The Macy’s app is similar to RightCliq, a so-called social shopping tool that Visa launched this past summer. The major difference is that Visa’s tool, which can be embedded in a Web browser’s toolbar, allows users to place items from multiple websites into a shopping list.

Once items are in this area, which Visa calls a “Wishspace,” users can forward copies of that list to friends on social networks, or give them access to it directly on the Rightcliq platform. The friends are expected to give their opinions on the items, creating the same experience the user would get by taking their friends on a shopping excursion.

The Rightcliq site also can store the information that retailers typically ask consumers for when making a purchase, including credit or debit card information. That allows users to automatically fill out the forms required to purchase any item in their Wishspace, shortening the time it takes to complete the purchase.

I haven’t tried Visa’s Rightcliq tool, but it sounds like it could be useful for serious shoppers looking for a new way of locating deals — as well as people like me who are constantly looking for ways to make shopping quick and easy.

I have concerns about storing my personal information — particularly credit card data — on any site, but I do like the idea of being able to place items from multiple sites in a single place, where I can quickly compare them, decide which one to buy and get on with my life. That would put this reluctant shopper in a festive mood any time of the year.

TechNewsWorld columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.

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