My wife went out shopping this evening, looking for something specific for her father – a quilt-lined flannel shirt in red or blue plaid without a hood, extra large.
She shopped for about two and a half hours. No joy. Everything she found had a hood. She was, suffice it to say, not happy.
“Honey,” I said, “I can find that for you pretty easily, I bet.”
“Online? Can you get it in time for Christmas?”
“Probably not now, but if you’d asked yesterday…”
“I didn’t know that’s what he wanted yesterday.”
“Oh. Well, we can give him a picture of what he’ll be receiving a day or two after Christmas.”
So I went searching. Specifically, I went Googling. (Yes, Google is evil, but it can still be your friend.)
Funny thing was, I wasn’t finding much. Oh, they were out there, but the winter fashion season is over, so everything’s in closeout. Wrong sizes, wrong colors, etc.
So then I went to Yahoo! and tried their search engine. Third hit on the page, Yahoo!Shopping. Not what I’m looking for on that page, but there’s a search function, so plug in “quilt lined flannel shirts” again, and bingo! Sixth down the page is a JC Penny St. John’s Bay quilt lined flannel shirt. I check, and it’s not only available in the right size and color, it’s shown to be in stock at the local mall. And it’s on sale, 50% off!
We just got back. They had exactly two of the right size and color still in stock. Original price: $50.00. Sale price: $19.99. According to my math, that’s more than 50% off.
This engendered a few thoughts.
First, it’s far, far easier to do your shopping online. If someone makes it, it’s probably advertised somewhere on the web. Ten minutes surfing beats two and a half hours driving, parking, walking, shopping, walking, driving, and waiting for idiots to get the hell out of the way.
Second, if there’s a lot of whatever it is you want out there, you can bargain hunt with the best of them. I’ve found that through judicious searching I can usually get what I want, delivered, for a little less than I can buy it locally. As long as I don’t need it right now, that’s by far the better deal. And if it costs just a little more? The convenience is worth it.
Third, on high-end stuff you can also comparison shop and you can get generally reliable feedback from consumers who have purchased the items you’re looking at. When I had to replace my audio receiver earlier this year, I settled on a new Onkyo home theater unit based on general recommendations from audiophiles at AR15.com, and on customer reviews at enthusiast web sites and sites that sell the hardware. As a result, I bought a decent system at a reasonable price point, and since time was of the essence I placed the order online with Circuit City (best price locally), and simply drove down and picked it up. In and out in less than ten minutes. They had it waiting for me when I walked in the door.
Fourth, it isn’t just high end stuff. My wife is hell on our non-stick cooking pans. Recently our 12″ square griddle gave up, and I had to find a new one. Glenn Reynolds has run several mini-carnivals of cookware, so I did some research there, and then went shopping. I ended up buying a griddle through Amazon.com, paying for it partially with a gift certificate. I had it delivered to me at work. No hassle, and it probably took less time than driving to a store, selecting one, and checking out with it, without doing the research first.
Fifth, I don’t think Christmas is going to be all that great for the brick-and-mortar retailers this year, for all of the abovementioned reasons. If it was, they wouldn’t be having 50% Off Sales before Christmas. And since the internet heavily leverages the purchasing power of the consumer, I’m also willing to bet that the overall profit picture isn’t going to be all that pretty for the virtual retailers, either. Someone’s always willing to undercut you.
So what do I think? I think if you’re a brick-and-mortar only retailer, your business model better be really, really good. If you’re a virtual retailer, you’d better have a damned good user interface, and you’d better be connected to the top search engines. I’ll pay extra if I don’t have to screw with a web site that makes it nearly impossible to find what I’m looking for, but I will deal with a little difficulty if it’ll save me a bunch of dough.
And I think I ought to invest in FedEx, UPS, and DHL. Those boys are going to do nothing but grow.