Online Shopping, Fridge Handles & Hi-Fi: How high street business might thrive in a webby world

I shop a lot online, have done for years, and it's not as if I don't have a choice. Whilst I do live in the country I work in a large city with all the usual range of both high street shops and independents. I still love to browse real goods and support my local shops, but I reckon I buy more online now than offline. But, curiously, I found out the other day that sometimes I really don't care who I buy from. I started to wonder what this means for marketing.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about risky trading at all. The web is my life, i.e. I live and breath it for both work and pleasure, so I'm more than capable of taking care of myself online. Most of the time I buy from respected and well known companies, but as the market diverges and more and more companies set up places for others to sell under their umbrella brand it's becoming possible to trade very easily as yourself - no marketing required.

It was a eBay transaction that made me stop to wonder whether this is actually shifting the role of marketing. I needed a new fridge handle as mine had cracked, and being at least 3 years old there was naturally no way to buy a new handle for my fridge without buying a new fridge to go with it :-/ I knew from past experience though that eBay had loads of odd stuff like this for sale, either the real thing or a replica, so went looking for one there. Sure enough I found what I was looking for very quickly and bought it. Then followed a quick conversation with my partner:

Me: "I found a new fridge handle for us, should be here in a couple of days."

Partner: "Did you buy it from some person?"

Me: "No ... errrr, actually, I don't know who I bought it from."

What got to me about this conversation was the very fact that I had no idea who I had just bought it from. Prices for what I wanted were pretty consistent across the various sellers, so I relied entirely on the ratings system in order to make my decision, so much so that the brand of whoever sold it was irrelevant. Sure enough the handle arrived promptly and works fine, so no problem there.

Now this is just a petty transaction for something that's practically a disposable item, so it's not as if I really cared too much about quality in this instance, but nonetheless I think it indicates a change in my own attitude about how I buy online. I have enough faith in the overarching infrastructure of the web, and of the larger brands such as eBay and Amazon where I've already built up experience in trading and a pretty thorough understanding of their policies, that I'm willing to let them take the risk and trust them to offer goods from whoever they decide to let into their spaces. Your own branding after that point is probably a waste of time. Basically even though I'm willing to give you my money, I don't trust you - I only trust (a) the space you're operating in (e.g. Amazon) and (b) the ratings other people like me have given you. That seems pretty cold when summed up so bluntly, but I think is probably a fair summary.

Oddly enough I think there's a silver lining in this for certain businesses. In this transaction the object itself is of little consequence, there's nothing really to distinguish one choice from another. This of course is the backbone of all web transactions, the fact that most objects for sale generally have little to distinguish them from each other, making it relatively simple to choose one without having to actually experience it in real life. Books, DVDs, even objects like washing machines, they can be assessed via reviews and manufacturers sites remotely and comparisons and decisions made without needing to leave the home. There are some objects though that are much harder to make decisions on - those that work together to form more than the sum of their parts.

I'm actually thinking of something specific here, hi-fi. It's the family business (, so it's never far from my mind, but it seems to me that selling something like this might actually benefit from the rise of the web - provided it latches in to two key ingredients that are missing from the web experience:

  • things that require a sense that the web doesn't yet support (e.g. touch - clothes being a classic example)
  • things that can be combined to create something more than the sum of their parts

I think hi-fi fits in here because the quality of audio and video reproduction online isn't high enough to make a decision. There's a big difference between acoustics and plain old sound, plus there's no way you're going to be able to appreciate a 50" HD (or even 3D!) TV picture on your PC screen. Then there's the complexity of the higher quality hi-fi components - i.e. the way they can be plugged together to create systems. I reckon you simply can't combine things online in enough detail to make good decisions. There's the myriad of cables and connectors that need to work together, the way different components combine and duplicate different tasks amongst them, not to mention the way that different components when combined in different ways can create different end results.

Anyhow, enough ramblings for now - I'm sure these ideas could be refined into something that makes more sense, but I need to point my brain back in the direction of ICT and Education!

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