Oliver Herwig • 21.02.2018
This can be arranged
How online shopping is changing the way we live. Speculation.
Are you familiar with a slight trembling when your hand moves across the screen or grips the mouse? It’s not the result of alcohol. The new drug is called omnipotence and everyone can become involved. Without a prescription. The man/woman simply needs to enter a dispatch portal and surf what‘s on offer. There’s really everything available. And most of it immediately. In the past such powers were reserved for crazy leaders, nowadays we all possess them. No wonder that «Spiegel» magazine had the headline «The customer as God» at the end of last year. But what’s it like to be such a spoiled consumer? And how do we prepare ourselves if we have been conditioned to order shoes and jackets in three colours and three sizes in the same order? We keep what fits and return the rest. What works quite well for clothing, needs a bit of logistics – and strong shoulders – for armchairs and tables. Preferably both. At least most living accessories do not fit into a normal parcel deposit and pick-up machine. Not yet because the many online dispatch companies are working on reducing the high return rates and still making their customers feel positive. How does this work? Now they are moving a step closer to their customers and opening branches in town centres: Amazon led the way, now Zalando and co. are following. They don’t have to be actual shops any more, often a clever concept for a pop-up shop is enough, which are ideal in a location where a traditional shop has not found someone to take over the premises.
But let’s get back to the psychology of online shopping. Gerald Hüther, Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Göttingen, is convinced that happy people would buy far fewer unnecessary items1. His explanation sounds surprisingly simple: Our brain works according to the reward principle. Like a prehistoric hunter it’s chasing moments of happiness. And how do we get them if we are permanently caught up in stressful situations? In the shopping experience. The fact that such a reward system isn’t really sustainable, seems to be widely recognised among scientists: Marion Sonnenmoser for example talks about «impulse control disruption» in Deutsches Ärzteblatt 10/20072. However not every shopper suffers from a «shopping addition» (compulsive buying disorder). Currently it’s just about five per cent3. However, the hidden things which clicking does to us are much more decisive: Our demands keep on increasing. How this works can be experienced immediately by going through the real world. What the book isn’t there?!! Or the scarf isn’t available in lavender only in Bordeaux? We already whip out our mobile phone and have a look what we can actually buy for this price. On the internet of course. Bad times for sellers, who only deal with proper shopping experts. And disloyal ones at that. Over three-quarters of people who are inspired in a store later buy the products online (Spiegel 50/2017, page 15. Source: IFH).
If we as customers are already God, then there is also a supreme God, who can guess everything that will suit us. How, in what order – and with what patterns. All-knowing algorithms make buying easier. We no longer have to rely on our good taste at all and exceptionally it no longer has anything to do with influencers and style gurus. It’s much more that we belong to a certain sine environment. This is how it works: If we like this or that product, then a third product will also suit us perfectly. And a fourth, fifth, sixth. We simply are not able to do anything differently. Configurators and menu-led decision-making assistants go one step further and lead us precisely to the things that we want. A key for this is convenience. There are definitely reasons why we outsource making a decision as we would otherwise have to click through tonnes of style tips, information, columns and recommendations from friends. Convenience comes up trumps, just like the widest selection and fast delivery. Isn’t it often the case that we don’t even know what we want before we see it? Online commerce is therefore at the same time a powerful market research instrument. Without much effort products can feature there (and be liked), which are not even available yet and which perhaps may never be available, at least not in large numbers. Limited editions and mass production create exactly what we all so very much want: Our piece, unique and precisely tailored to us. This is no longer a utopia, this is part of a highly specialised production process, which no longer needs large runs and series to be profitable. Another advantage: The high return rates fall and consumers’ satisfaction rises.
Sofa-shopping on the sofa
We want to feel good if we are already spending money. This applies in a café and with friends, but the combination of both is unbeatable: With friends on your sofa at home. Usually with your Smartphone in your hand. Or two Smartphones. A study by ECC Cologne and the HSE 24 shopping channel proves that this already works in fashion. «77 per cent of women between 25 and 40 years of age more frequently shop for fashion with their Smartphone than only three years ago.»4 This is also not surprising. The current devices are really small notebooks. What does this therefore mean for our own four walls? Thanks to augmented reality, all of what was previously in a catalogue is projected into your own home. We therefore soon brandish our Smartphone and see the new sofa, the new curtains and the new side table – actually in the room, not somehow pasted into it. A personal lifestyle adviser (almost a coach) can also be clicked in via an app, who sweetens the virtual trial positioning for us and makes it clear to us why the model in copper might go better with grandma’s trunk. The technical aids – high resolution 360-degree panorama images and an adjustable 3D room planner – have now become standard features5. Augmented reality is a powerful tool, a catalyst, which prevents purchasing errors and gives us an image of what we can expect, without having to go to a furniture store with a ruler and floor plan.
Let’s go one step further. Do we still actually need furniture? The question sounds very silly in a living blog, but at least one thing is certain: LED or better still OLED wallpaper will in future serve as a replacement for a TV on the one hand and also expand our living worlds. A click of the fingers and already the waves of the Indian Ocean are breaking against our sofa. A verbal command and we go to sleep in a wood. Or in a castle. Or with the ex. Anyone who now fears landing in a world of self-contained nerds, should also heed this: The rising shipment of goods also has its good sides. Are you already annoyed that the delivery man always comes at the wrong time or that you always have to accept deliveries for other people, while you yourself have to go to the post office to collect things? Shopping opens up a new contact forum: We finally get to know our neighbours. That has to be good news for the stressed residents of ground floor apartments. They can finally develop a dating portal in their own building. However, all this might also soon be a thing of the past: The so-called last mile, which drives the logistics companies and delivery staff to a nervous breakdown, could soon no longer be necessary. Not only through drones (in exceptional cases), but through permanently installed parcel deposit and pick-up points in the corridor. The letterbox will vanish – instead there will be large lockers with PIN codes and an additional freezer/chiller compartment. The whole of everyday life will soon be delivered to your door. Here Lars Hofacker raises an objection. The manager in the e-commerce research division of EHI Retail Institutes, Cologne, says: «An Amazon locker, a DHL package box and a Hermes version in one building corridor can’t be the solution.» He sees a differentiated development: «Perhaps there will be a large (for providers) open parcel deposit and pick-up point for every district or block in a town, mini-hubs and only if a high price is paid will the delivery be to the front door – or only if an intelligent parcel box is located in the entrance area. A few providers are already working on solutions.»
One thing is certain: No one knows precisely what’s round the corner. Whether we can really roll out lawns on our current pedestrian zones, then play cricket and football there or instead of retailers only bakers, hairdressers and cafés will survive, while the logistics halls outside the town grow and grow – that’s still open. Architects such as Professor Ritz Ritzer from Munich sound relaxed about it. In response to the question of the influence of online shopping on our homes (in other words the home itself), he says: «It won’t be sooooo large, on the contrary something will have to be considered about how goods are delivered: The large fluctuation in delivery companies leads to unreliable conditions and errors. However, regulation would not be a disadvantage here – even if it cost a few cents more … Perhaps re-nationalisation?» His colleagues from Munich Katrin and Giancarlo Maio also remain relaxed: «There is neither a need for additional, previously completely unknown functions in a private living space nor even more or more intelligent storage space.» They are thinking instead about increased security measures (on building or apartment doors) – «as protection against disagreeable hangers-on…» and bringing the institution of a «caretaker» back under discussion: «At first glance a great opportunity to bring this great facility back to life: at last the entrances and staircases will once again be nice and clean…! But it’s bound to cost too much in the age of outsourcing.»
This means that home sweet home probably remains the best-investigated unknown quantity of our lives. However, much we use technology, we continually fall back on very basic desires and expectations. The new old home should still be cosy. And for that a good algorithm can certainly make great proposals. After all this is what
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said in Gattopardo: «If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.»