Thursday, February 02, 2006

Online Commerce

Giving new meaning to the phrase 'window shopping'

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, April 8, 1998 -- A [Image]
frothy cappuccino, a crumbly blueberry scone and
the latest glossy hardcover from the National Design
Museum: this kind of luxurious coffee break is inevitably
what happens when I steal a few moments to stop into the
nearest Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore. Y'know what
doesn't happen? I don't buy books.

When I really want to buy a book, I go to (the
online merchant which boasts being "the world's largest
bookstore"). The whole transaction takes two minutes if I
(and the necessary telecommunications apparatus) am
especially efficient.

The bookstore? How arcane! It takes 20 minutes just to
get there. Then I have to wait on line at the info desk,
physically find my book on the shelf, then wait on yet
another line at the register. And that's if I'm lucky
enough to find what I want there. If not, I'd have to go
to another bookstore (all the while maintaining the
energy it takes to smile cheerfully at each store's
salesperson -- I am a New Yorker, after all), sending me
yet another 15 minutes out of my way, just to have
someone perform the search that I could do in a flash in
the privacy of my home.

While books are a particularly good model for this system
(as are digital products like images, audio files and
software, as Howard Blumenthal pointed out in When Worlds
Collide), online shopping is expanding to apply to other
goods. Online supermarket services such as
let you buy groceries and humble incidentals like shampoo
and batteries on the internet and have them delivered to
your home or office.

While the continued growth of online shopping might be a
natural progression for a networked interactive medium,
it seems ironic that corporations are putting billions
into the construction of megastores in major cities.
Anyone who has visited one -- those New York theme-park
tourist attractions like Niketown, the Warner Brothers
Store and the Swatch Timeship -- can see that simple
sales of jogging shorts and stuffed Tasmanian Devil toys
aren't supporting the extravagant displays and
elaborately crafted environments.

Instead, these "brand cathedrals" (as the British
magazine Design called them) are gigantic 3D corporate
identity ads. The physically located store in this case
functions much the way my local bookstore does for me:
it's a nice place to look around, but I wouldn't want to
buy there. After a visit to Niketown to learn all about
the latest high-tech fabrics and ultra resilient
air-pocket-laden shoe soles, consumers can go to a local
discount shop -- or better yet, to the convenience of the
Internet, to have purchases delivered to their doorsteps.
For them, the store becomes a product museum.

As a designer, I take particular delight in seeing the
retail store turned into a design showcase. On the other
hand, I cringe at the thought of the physical location
eventually being cut out of the purchasing loop. When
people start buying products based on two-dimensional
images and product specs alone, they'll be ignoring the
aesthetically crucial object qualities, such as weight
and texture, that contribute to a person's interaction
with the product. The irony of online sales is that when
the traditional browsing and impulse buying do not take
place, the whole experience becomes less interactive.

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This column is an exclusive.


At 2:06 AM, Blogger carla said...

I have since learned to appreciate the local bookstore and support the independent bookseller.


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