Tuesday, July 13, 2021
an appeal to people who sell stuff on the internet
This is a suggestion that people in business should be better at it. It’s a departure for me, inasmuch as I kind of hate business. All the same, if you work for or own a company that does e-commerce, build a web site that sells stuff, etc., this is one is addressed directly to you. (Unless the company / site we’re talking about, is for example, Amazon, in which case my only message to you is “stop that”.)
My job doesn’t involve selling physical goods on the internet now, but it’s something I spent around a decade on. Since I moved on to other things, it’s been unpleasant to watch so many of the people still doing it become so bad at it.
Let’s start with this: Your job is hard to do well. It was never exactly a cakewalk, but the whole environment has changed, and mostly not in a way that favors your chances. Web retail used to be an area where you could stumble into a growing revenue stream just by having something people wanted and posting half-decent pictures of it on a barebones shopping cart site.
Now you have to contend with:
- Amazon’s all-devouring maw
- Google’s adtech protection racket
- More and faster competition from a global supply chain
- Ubiquitous phones
- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- How you’ve probably hired marketing professionals
- The grotesque absurdity of contemporary web development tech
- …just all of it, really.
I mostly wrote code for a living, but that meant I got to see the moving parts of a web retail business: Product design, purchasing, manufacturing, inventory control and catalog management, content marketing, customer service and technical support, picking/packing/shipping, fraud prevention, taxes, regulatory compliance, etc. I know there’s a lot that might live behind any given shopping cart icon.
Still, here I am. I buy things on the web: Electronics, computers, audio gear, notebooks, pens, tools, books, music, concert tickets. I feel bad when I give money to Amazon. I don’t operate under an illusion that your business is ethical, because mostly businesses are unethical, but all the same I would rather pay smaller organizations. Maybe your employees seem better treated, maybe I want to support manufacturing where you’re located, maybe I just like your product.
It’s 2021, and I am a person with money who might like to give you some of it. Help me to help you.
What I want:
- To give you money in return for a thing
- To know up front what the thing costs
- To see clear pictures and a description of the thing I’m buying, including relevant technical specs
- To have the thing shipped to me
- To know where to ask for help if something goes wrong with getting the thing
Things I won’t mind along the way if you manage not to louse it up:
- Reading some reviews of the thing from your other customers
- Showing me the similar things you have for sale
- Getting an e-mail when I place the order and one when it ships (but seriously like 2 e-mails, no I don’t want your newsletter)
What I do not want:
- To load dozens of actively hostile 3rd-party spyware services
- To figure out which half dozen actively hostile 3rd-party spyware services I need to tell my adblocker to ignore for your site to work
- To discover much later that my order has been silently canceled without notification
- To drive an hour to retrieve my order at a distribution center because you shipped it to an undeliverable address
- To be remarketed at, anywhere, ever
- To install an actively hostile mobile app in order to access and/or transfer ownership of the thing I purchased
- To give up and buy the thing on Amazon because your website doesn’t work
- To like and subscribe
- To fill out a survey
- To know I’m being A/B tested
- To engage with your brand
- Just about anything the marketing professionals you hired probably want
To a first approximation and as best I can figure it out, the business I know the most about took off because some people in college stumbled into a growing revenue stream by way of posting decent pictures of stuff or whatever. As it grew, it was built and operated by a bunch of mostly-20-something stoners and freaks, most with scant experience.
I know it’s grim out there, but it keeps surprising me in 2021 just how thoroughly almost everyone seems to have thrown up their hands in defeat. A decade ago, us misfit toys were halfway competent at this. Now what happens is the laptop fans spin furiously in order to show me a giant popover about the 16 ways you want to abuse my privacy while a couple layers of video try to play in the background and the infinitely scrolling gallery of product photos fails to load correctly for some reason, the little counters on the adblocker widgets ticking ever upward. Later, you cancel my order but neglect to mention it to me. The second time I place an order, you send it to an address I told you not to use and I have to figure out which giant FedEx building a county over has ahold of it. When I finally open the box, a cable is missing. Soon afterwards I realize I’ve been subscribed to your newsletter.
As the cast of Letterkenny would say: Figure it out.