Spent half the day helping Viv look online for a specific pair of boots we’d seen at a local boutique with limited stock – none in her size. The designer’s hq is (or possibly was) in New York and the website is downish – that is to say, the URL resolves but a permissions error protects the content from the rabble of the web.
The specific design feature of the boots was the stitched duck-style rubber sole and welt beneath a very high quality soft midcalf leather upper. It was witty, attractive and well made.
The inadvertent result of spending so much time looking for the boot is the realization of what a terrible mess women’s wearable product marketing is online. I totally expected that there would probably be multiple manufacturers providing duck-sole, leather upper semi-dress boots, but in fact, there are only a very few, and most of them extend the rubber to the entire foot area, joining the non-rubber upper at the ankle, as does the traditional duck shoe.
I also expected that the individual construction features of the shoe – such as sole material or construction style, upper construction material, and so forth – would be in well-defined taxonomies, such that a direct narrowing process would allow me to immediately view the range of products that fit my needs.
I am reasonably confident that the women in my readership are laughing heartily. No retailer, not one, provided a reasonable multilevel features-based taxonomy to narrow selection. At best I could narrow to “boots, women, leather” or “rubber.” The over-narrowing of materials also forced retailers to list inappropriate items, so that a “leather boots” search would include rubber and pleather.
The intentional obfuscation of available choices is a hallmark both of traditional physical retail sales and the earliest efforts to practice online sales. Over the past ten years, thanks primarily to Google and to a lesser extent Amazon (by design) and eBay (despite itself), many areas of online retail now rest firmly on a foundation of immediate and direct consumer transparency and features narrowing.
However, this is changing. Facebook and Apple are at the heart of the problem.
The success of Apple’s restricted-market App store, which nearly entirely eschews feature narrowing and which is carefully content and function vetted to protect Apple-held areas of interest, clearly demonstrates that consumers remain ready to spend large amounts of money despite the lack of these crucial sales tools. The net result, consumer expenditure in an information impoverished environment, guarantees a higher per-unit price point, just as it traditionally has in auto sales.
Facebook emulates this by creating a socially-fulfilling environment which goes to great lengths to prevent the introduction of interesting online content which is best consumed outside of Facebook. The end result is that while
larger and larger numbers of people are engaging in social interaction online, fewer and fewer of them are experiencing a range of online environments. This means that the newer online consumer has a weaker grasp of online tools to determine what the range of choices may be with regard to any given online interaction, including purchasing decisions.
Over the past six months, Google has been acting aggressively to combat the perceived threat that Facebook poses to their advertising revenue. Unfortunately, rather than seeking to disrupt the appealing, information-impoverished environment of Facebook or the App Store, Google has been reactively seeking to emulate these organizations’ user-herding strategies.
I strongly suspect that the partial progress in place in Amazon and eBay to increase transparency to the purchaser will be eroded over time as these organizations seek in turn to emulate Google in its’ disheartening turn toward user captivity. Each site, of course, already has a powerful incentive to keep the casual site visitor within the domain as long as possible. I would guess that the primary vehicle each site will employ is some method of user rewards in exchange for specific partner merchant purchases.
The end result of this will be to diminish, to some extent, the long-term shift toward online shopping, while at the same time increasing margins only for the largest merchants. And it will keep the process of shopping for women’s boots online a fruitless nightmare.
Of course, the resolution to this would appear to be someone taking up the originating mantle of Google’s commitment to radical, disruptive transparency in search. It’s not impossible that Microsoft or Amazon could actually adopt this orientation, in my opinion. It is awfully unlikely that Microsoft would do so, however, simply because their most profitable products rely on obfuscated pricing schemes. Amazon might possibly adopt some of the strategy, though. The company deliberately encourages internal competition and the most prized metric is gross income. Transparency in marketing and pricing benefits grosses but can squeeze profit margins; Amazon has been steadily working toward a business model that shifts the margin problem to third parties while still growing the grosses at a healthy clip. So there is a strong incentive within the company to target this turn toward information poverty in managing the online audience.
This week’s snow and ice seems to have done for an arbor vitae in our yard. I will have to wait until it dries out a bit to cut it down and chop it up. The only other casualties of the weather on the property seem to be an improbably long-lived wolfsbane and, inexplicably, a porch light, which failed at first freeze, well before any snow, ice, or rain.